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To lower student debt, Pennsylvania’s network of 14 state schools ask for historic funding increase

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) claims a decline in enrollment is precisely why colleges need a large increase in funding.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Enrollment at Pennsylvania’s 14 public universities declined 9.4 percent, or 1.3 million students, since before the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse’s Research Center.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) claims this decline in enrollment is precisely why colleges need a large increase in funding.

PASSHE has requested a historic increase in its annual funding appropriation: $550 million, which is 15 percent, or $72 million, more than last year.

PASSHE leadership point to NSC data showing the number of students starting college increased in the last year. That suggests the decline in enrollment is driven by students who have already enrolled dropping out before they graduate.

Minority and low-income students are disproportionately affected by this trend. Minority students and Pell Grant recipient students return to study their sophomore year at significantly lower rates than their peers, according to a study cited by PASSHE.

PASSHE leaders said financial aid is the solution to both declining enrollment and access issues for some students.

“At Kutztown they’ve tracked it and they’ve seen that low and middle income students in receipt of aid will improve their retention rates dramatically,” said Daniel Greenstein, Chancellor of PASSHE. “Of all the things you could do to keep a student, financial aid is the one that works best.”

PASSHE already pulls $100 million a year from its operating costs to spend directly on financial aid. It plans to use the additional funding to further reduce tuition costs for students.

The request comes as the state legislature is negotiating the state budget, which must be passed by June 30. The state has a record surplus of money this year, thanks to funds from the American Rescue Act.

Gov. Tom Wolf supports the proposal to increase PASSHE funding. He has also promoted a proposal called the Nellie Bly Scholarship, which would allocate an additional $200 million to state college students who go into the fields of education, health care or public service.

“It’s going to help students attending community colleges or our 14 state universities to cover the real costs of college. That includes room, that includes board, books, supplies,” Wolf said.

PASSHE leadership said they are also working on building out programs to graduate more students in STEM and other growing industries.

Senate Republicans declined to comment on their response to the PASSHE funding request while they’re negotiating the state budget.

The Republican Chair of the House Education Committee, State Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie), supports the funding. He wrote in an op-ed, “The Legislature must do its part by investing in it so students can get jobs here and build lives in our region.”

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