Improved access to higher education is a goal within reach

Over the last few years, higher education has become one of the most controversial issues facing our state. When Governor Tom Corbett unveiled his first budget in 2011, it included roughly $2 billion in cuts to education, including steep cuts to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Colleges and Universities throughout the Commonwealth have raised tuition to all-time highs, and on top of that they had to make tough budgetary decisions that resulted in larger class sizes and the end of many popular programs on those campuses. Suddenly, the goal of providing an affordable path to a college degree has began to slip out of reach for many in our Commonwealth. But restoring these crippling cuts to the state system is only the first step in our mission to giving students every possible opportunity to succeed. We need to inject bold, new ideas into the debate on higher education here in Pennsylvania, and one such idea would go a long way towards the dream of a quality college education for all.

Each year, plenty of smart, hard-working students graduate high school but are unable to continue their education because they can’t afford college. And if they do manage to enroll in a university, they become encumbered with a debt that will take years to pay back. To put matters in perspective, student loan debt recently passed credit card debt as the single-highest form of debt that Americans owe. In Pennsylvania, we’re blessed with a strong group of 14 state schools that for years have offered a much more affordable way to earn a degree. But with Gov. Corbett’s steep cuts, even they are in danger of becoming prohibitively expensive to some.

Another state has already found a good solution to this problem. Georgia’s HOPE scholarship (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) offers students a full-tuition scholarship to one of that state’s public colleges and universities if they maintain a 3.0 GPA and meet attendance requirements. It’s led to a more well-educated populace that isn’t saddled with huge amounts of student loan debt

Here in Pennsylvania, legislation has already been introduced that would create a near-identical program called the REACH scholarship (Reliable Educational Assistance for College Hopefuls). With a 3.0 GPA and a 90 percent attendance record, students would receive a full tuition scholarship to one of the 14 state schools. Additionally, recipients of the scholarship would have to agree to remain as Pennsylvania residents for 4 years, helping to combat “brain drain,” which occurs when our most talented college graduates leave the state to take jobs elsewhere after earning their education here.

This is exactly the kind of action we need to be taking to improve the lives of the people who need it most in our Commonwealth. Not only would the scholarship provide a path to a college education to those who cannot afford it, it would also serve as a incentive for students to perform well in high school. Surely there are students across Pennsylvania who, since they know they can’t afford college, don’t have the same motivation to perform that they might have if the prospect of a full tuition scholarship was put in front of them. And the statistics from the HOPE scholarship in Georgia show just that: SAT scores improved, attendance rates went up 50%, and, perhaps most importantly, more students remained in their home state after graduating.

Some may worry about the cost to taxpayers in funding such an effort. But the bill would create a REACH Scholarship Fund that would be financed by donations and contributions from various public and private sources, as well as by interest earned by the fund. So the cost to taxpayers would be small compared to the incredibly positive impact the scholarship would have on our Commonwealth.

Currently before the House Education Committee as HB 182, the bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. Brendan Boyle. It unanimously passed out of committee in a previous legislative session. I urge the committee to take up debate on the bill once more and move it to the full House floor for a vote. Giving more students more opportunities should be what we are about in Pennsylvania, and there are young people all across our state that deserve the chance to go to college. Let’s give them that chance.