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In Plan for Tuition Aid, Rendell Limits Choice

A large amount would go for state schools only.

By L. Jay Lemons
President of Susquehanna University and chair of the board of directors of the Association of Independent Colleges
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Hard times often generate innovation, and this has been true for higher education. Some of the most powerful initiatives—ones that left indelible marks on our nation's prosperity and greatly boosted our colleges and universities—were enacted during our nation's most difficult years.

The Morrill Act, which led to the development of land grant institutions such as Penn State, was signed into law in the middle of the Civil War. In 1944, President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights. Within three years, World War II veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions.

As the nation confronts financial challenges of historic proportions, higher education feels the pressure. As college endowments shrink as much as 40 percent, institutions face daily gut-wrenching decisions. Many have delayed necessary capital improvements, frozen wages and new hiring, and put curricular initiatives on hold. Some have had difficulty meeting payrolls. A few may close.

Gov. Rendell recently unveiled his Tuition Relief Act, in many ways a courageous piece of legislation. Responding to anticipated fiscal shortfalls, the measure makes deep cuts in higher education, but attempts to ameliorate these cuts through two major initiatives.

The first is positive: It proposes an 11 percent increase in the state's Student Grant Program, including $10 million earmarked for students attending community colleges. The grant program, administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), is entirely need-based, providing access to both public and private universities in the state.

However, the second initiative restricts student and parental choice. The proposal would provide up to $7,600 in addition to federal and state need-based financial aid but only for students entering community colleges and the 14 public universities of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

This plan would penalize students who attend private colleges or universities such as Rosemont College or St. Joseph's University, or state-related schools such as Temple, Penn State, or Pitt.

The governor expects to enroll 20,000 more students in community colleges and PASSHE universities—whose students already receive a large taxpayer subsidy though the annual state appropriation. However, because many of these schools are overcrowded, it is unlikely that more students will be able to take the classes needed to graduate on time.

The latest data show that 31 percent of state-system students graduate in four years, compared with 43 percent at the state-related institutions and 62 percent at private schools. At Susquehanna University, typically 80 percent of our students graduate in four years.

It currently costs taxpayers $21,691 to produce a degree at the state-system universities. It costs only $3,602 to produce a degree at a Pennsylvania private college or university, according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania. The governor's proposal, by steering students to an overcrowded state-owned system, will substantially increase taxpayer costs to produce degrees.

More than 150,000 Pennsylvania students attend private colleges in the state, conservatively saving taxpayers about $450 million a year. Private colleges and universities award half of the bachelor degrees earned in the state. The state-related institutions award an additional 29 percent. It is poor public policy to ignore—or potentially damage—the sectors that produce nearly 80 percent of the degrees.

Tuition relief is a worthy goal. Directing the same size investment proposed in the Tuition Relief Act to PHEAA would provide real tuition relief for Pennsylvanians. It also would reaffirm and reinforce access and choice, which are the two values that have undergirded higher education policy in Pennsylvania for more than 40 years.

Bold investments in higher education have greatly benefited our nation and state, especially in challenging times, but let us make such an investment in a manner consistent with our long-standing principles.

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