State schools

To reduce student debt, network of 14 Pennsylvania public schools seeks historic funding boost

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) says a drop in enrollment is precisely why colleges need a big boost in funding.

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

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) says this drop in enrollment is precisely why colleges need a big increase in funding.

PASSHE requests a historic increase in its annual endowment: 550 million dollarsthat’s 15%, or $72 million, more than last year.

PASSHE leadership says NSC data shows the number of students starting college has increased over the past year. This suggests that the decline in enrollment is due to students who have already enrolled dropping out before graduating.

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

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

“At Kutztown, they followed it and they saw that low- and middle-income students who receive aid will dramatically improve their retention rates,” said Daniel Greenstein, Chancellor of PASSHE. “Of all the things you could do to keep a student, financial aid works best.”

PASSHE already derives $100 million a year from its operating costs to spend directly on financial aid. He plans to use the extra funds to further reduce student tuition.

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

Governor Tom Wolf supports the proposal to increase funding for PASSHE. He also promoted a proposal called the Nellie Bly Scholarship, which would award an additional $200 million to state college students entering the fields of education, health care or public service.

“This is going to help students who attend community colleges or our 14 state universities cover the real costs of college. That includes the room, the board, the books, the supplies,” Wolf said.

PASSHE management said it is also working to create programs to graduate more students in STEM and other growing industries.

Senate Republicans declined to comment on their response to PASSHE’s funding request as they negotiate the state budget.

Republican House Education Committee Chairman State Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie) supports the funding. He wrote in an editorial: “The Legislative Assembly must do its part by investing in it so that students can get jobs here and build lives in our region.

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