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Pa. lawmakers eye compromise as clashing higher education funding plans take shape

The Pennsylvania state Capitol.
Matt Rourke
The Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

While lawmakers agree that Pennsylvania’s higher education system needs to change, Republicans and Democrats this month have advanced conflicting proposals on how to do it.

The Republican-led Senate passed several pieces of their “Grow PA” package Tuesday with near-unanimous bipartisan support for two proposals. Those bills would create new post-secondary education grant programs and expand pre-existing ones to help students afford schooling and career training while boosting the state’s workforce.

House Democrats have advanced Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s “blueprint” to restructure the state’s system — combining community colleges and state-affiliated schools under one governing umbrella. Introduced in both chambers last week, the House’s version was referred to its Education Committee on Monday.

But top lawmakers said Tuesday they’re optimistic they can negotiate an agreement before the June 30 state budget deadline, based on conversations they’ve had about the higher education proposals so far.

State Sen. Scott Martin, a Martic Township Republican who has sway over budget bills as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, said he and Republicans are “certainly happy to listen” to Democrats’ ideas about how to improve the state’s higher education system, though he added that the bipartisan support for his bills shows Senate Republicans are “on the right path.”

Before Tuesday’s votes, House Education Committee Chairman Pete Schweyer, a Lehigh County Democrat sponsoring his party’s proposal in the House, said the Senate’s plan is “very interesting” and has “a lot of things in there” that Democrats can get behind, though he wouldn’t elaborate on which pieces he thinks are negotiable.

“We’re both trying to address problems in our own ways,” Schweyer said. “All sides are working in good faith.”

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Republicans' 'Grow PA' plan

A product of the state system as a Millersville University alumnus, Martin sponsored three of the seven bills included in the GOP’s plan this year.

Two of Martin’s bills would create new scholarship programs for students pursuing degrees in in-demand industries, such as nursing and teaching, on the condition that recipients agree to live and work in that industry in Pennsylvania for at least 15 months after graduating.

The first scholarship, passed unanimously, would offer up to $5,000 to in-state students, while the second, opposed by one Democrat, would open in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students who maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5.

During floor debate, Martin said lawmakers must address Pennsylvania’s shrinking workforce.

“The best way to address this crisis is to encourage the best and the brightest students both here in PA and throughout the country to earn their degrees here, get jobs here and put down their roots here and raise their families here.”

The total price tag for implementing both programs could be $800,000 to $1.2 million, according to fiscal notes from the Appropriations Committee.

Millersville is Lancaster County’s only state-system school. The other 10 schools are spread across Pennsylvania, from Edinboro University in Erie to Cheyney University in Delaware County.

Those universities have seen total enrollment decline 30% in the past 10 years, while enrollment at Pennsylvania’s 15 community colleges has dropped 37%, according to Shapiro’s administration, which its staff attributes to rising tuition costs.

According to the National College Attainment Network, Pennsylvania is one of the least affordable states to attend college.

To promote established financial assistance programs, Republicans roped in Martin’s proposal to require all Pennsylvania high schoolers to fill out the Free Federal Application for Federal Student Aid as part of their higher education plan. That bill passed the Senate in June last year but has since stalled in the House Education Committee.

West Hempfield Republican Sen. Ryan Aument’s pitch to create performance-based funding standards for state-related institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Temple University, also passed Tuesday. The fourth state-related school, Lincoln University, is not included. It passed in a party-line 28-21 vote.

“Moving to a performance-based funding model will hold universities accountable, safeguard taxpayer dollars and prepare students to secure family-sustaining jobs right here in the commonwealth,” Aument said on the floor.

Allegheny County Democrat Lindsay Williams spoke against the bill on the floor, citing research from Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert A. Simon from Carnegie Mellon University to argue that a performance-based funding model would not work in Pennsylvania’s complex education system.

The Senate also passed Sen. David Argall’s bill to establish a Higher Education Task Force charged with a list of responsibilities, such as increasing student enrollment from other states.

Other “Grow PA” proposals had passed the chamber earlier this week. They include expansions to the Ready to Succeed scholarship program and the Fostering Independence tuition waiver program to provide scholarships to out-of-state students who are either in foster care or adopted as older teenagers.

None of the Senate’s approved bills can become law without support from House Democrats.

Democrats' 'Blueprint'

Schweyer said lawmakers need to shape the state’s higher education system to find cost savings for the state, address industry workforce needs and promote family-sustaining jobs.

Democrats’ proposal “checks all of those boxes,” Schweyer said.

In addition to placing community colleges and state-affiliated schools under a new governing body, called the State Board of Higher Education, the proposal would increase their funding by about 15% and cap tuition at $1,000 per semester for in-state students with families making less than the state’s average median household income for the last five years. Pennsylvania’s current median household income is about $70,000.

It also includes policies sought by Republicans, such as language requiring the Department of Education to develop a performance-based funding formula to distribute funds to the schools.

Similar programs have drawn past criticism from top Democrats and advocates for harming historically Black colleges and universities. But the House’s plan includes a provision urging the Education Department to include a fixed amount of funding for all state-owned universities and an “additional amount” for historically Black colleges and universities.

In a February budget hearing to discuss Shapiro’s plan, the chief executive of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, Daniel Greenstein, said he broadly supported it.

Greenstein added that his group is seeking about $624 million in this year’s budget, a $38 million increase over the current fiscal year’s funding, to freeze tuition increases, which he said helps improve enrollment rates.

“I firmly believe that every Pennsylvanian deserves the freedom to chart their own course and the opportunity to succeed,” Shapiro said in a statement last week. “For too long, Pennsylvania has disinvested in higher education — leading to higher costs and barriers that actually drive students away from pursuing a higher education.”

Those barriers, according to Shapiro’s administration, have created a gap between Pennsylvania’s need for jobs requiring degrees and credentials, such as nursing, teaching and mental health professionals, and the number of people who meet those qualifications.

Read more from our partners, LNP | LancasterOnline.