Keystone Research and PA Budget and Policy Center Release “PA Promise” Plan to Make College Affordable and Boost PA Economy, Including in Rural Regions

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HARRISBURG — The Keystone Research Center and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center today released a new report titled “The Pennsylvania Promise: Making College Affordable and Securing Pennsylvania’s Economic Future.” The report lays out a detailed plan to make post-secondary education more affordable for Pennsylvania students attending community colleges, schools that are part of the State System of Higher Education and state-related universities (University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln).

The report was unveiled at a press conference in the Capitol this morning. Speakers at the press conference included Stephen Herzenberg, co-author of the report and Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center, Ken Mash, President of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, and numerous legislative leaders who support increased state funding for higher education.

Currently per capita funding for higher education in Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 states.  The increase in state spending required under the Pennsylvania Promise would raise Pennsylvania’s rank to 36th. 

For about a billion per year, the “Pennsylvania Promise” program would: 

  • cover two years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate enrolled full-time at one of the Commonwealth’s 14 public community colleges; 
  • cover four years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate with a family income less than or equal to $110,000 per year accepted into one of the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education;
  • provide four years of grants ranging from $2,000 up to $11,000, depending on family income, for students accepted into a state-related University;  
  • provide free tuition to adults without a college degree, with priority given to those seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials (such as apprenticeships), as well as college credit.

“Anyone who cares about Pennsylvania, particularly those parts of the state underserved by affordable, accessible higher education – most of the state outside the Philadelphia metro area and parts of the Pittsburgh metro area – should be leading the charge for Pennsylvania to enact the Pennsylvania Promise,” said report co-author Mark Price, Labor Economist for the Keystone Research Center

There is a pressing need for reinvestment in post-secondary education and training in Pennsylvania, as laid out in previous issue briefs available here, here and here. The funding situation is dire:

  • Thirty-five years of state disinvestment have left Pennsylvania ranked worst in the nation when it comes to higher education, sunk in the rankings by students’ high debt at graduation and the state’s high tuition and fees, according to U.S. News and World Report. 
  • The state ranks 40th for the share of adults 25-64 with an education beyond high school. 
  • In over half of Pennsylvania counties (35), the share of adults with more than a high-school degree is lower than in any of the 50 states (i.e., lower than West Virginia’s 48.1%). 
  • A large body of economic research shows that lagging educational attainment translates to lower wages and incomes for individuals and slower economic growth for regions.
  • The Wall Street Journal has already labeled rural America the “new inner city,” the nation’s most troubled regions. Rural Pennsylvania has so far escaped the downward spiral of some parts of West Virginia and Kentucky. But if Pennsylvania’s rural counties remain higher education deserts, it would guarantee their accelerating decline over the next generation.

“The global race for raising incomes and increasing opportunity hinges critically on access to post-secondary education and training,” said Diana Polson, report co-author and Policy Analyst for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “If Pennsylvania does not expand access to higher education to more of its citizens, the Commonwealth’s economy will suffer and living standards will lag behind growth elsewhere.” 

For comparison, the Pennsylvania Promise program would cost:

  • One fourth of the revenue raised from increasing the Pennsylvania personal income tax rate by one percentage point.
  • About half of the revenue raised by a progressive tax proposal that cuts the personal income tax rate on wages and interest while raising it on the income derived from wealth. This is a proposal that would lower taxes for most Pennsylvanians, including a large majority of the rural Pennsylvanians who would especially benefit from the Pennsylvania Promise.
  • Roughly the money raised by a severance tax like West Virginia’s. The added appeal of using a severance tax to fund a portion of the Pennsylvania Promise would be that many drilling regions lack a low-cost local community college, making attendance at two and four-year institutions a particularly burdensome proposition for low income students from those regions. 
  • The amount raised by a 0.054 percent flat tax on financial wealth (“net worth”) – $540 annually for a taxpayer with $1 million in financial assets. Investing these revenues in the Pennsylvania Promise, thereby addressing Pennsylvania’s chronic higher education investment deficit, would increase wealth in Pennsylvania long-term. Funding this investment solely through a wealth/net worth tax paid almost entirely by the highest-income Pennsylvanians would put the burden of financing increased access to higher education on those individuals who have benefited most from tax and economic policy in the last several decades. It would also generate profound improvements in opportunity and quality of life for Pennsylvanians generally.

Read the full report.