The Lead

Free college? ‘Why not?’ Lawmakers, educators, and students rally at the Capitol

By: - March 27, 2019 1:06 pm

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, rallies college students in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on a bill providing for free college (Capital-Star photo).

Hundreds of sign-waving college students, educators and lawmakers rallied in the Capitol rotunda on Wednesday on behalf of legislation that would provide a free college education to scores of Pennsylvania students.

The “Pa. Promise” plan, as it’s known, provides grants “of at least $1,000 per year for community college students for two years and a minimum of $2,500 per year for four years to Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Schools and state related institutions,” according to the office of Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, who’s sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

“We want to let the whole state know that there’s nothing wrong with free college,” Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said as he tried to whip up a crowd that filled the rotunda’s main staircase and the balconies above. He then led them in a chant: “‘Why not? Free college.'”

The “Promise” program, which is open to families with an income of $110,000 a year or less, also “provides $50 million for adults in families whose incomes are less than $110,000 to acquire up to four years of postsecondary credit,” Hughes’ office said.

“I know exactly what it feels like to be a student in a state [System of Higher Education] school here in Pennsylvania,” House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, a Millersville University graduate, told the crowd. “Going to class and trying to do my best, but also understanding the pains of having to pay for school.

Sixty-eight percent of all Pennsylvania college students finish their higher education with some kind of debt, carrying an average of $35,759, The Pittsburgh Business Journal reported, citing data compiled by GoBankingRates, an online finance site. Pennsylvania ranked second nationally, after New Hampshire and ahead of Connecticut, where students graduated with $36,367 and $35,494, respectively, in college loan debt.

As a student, Harris, D-Philadelphia, said his late grandmother would “take $100 out of her retirement check, every two weeks, and send me money at school so that I had something to eat.”

Ken Mash, the president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty, the union that represents state system faculty, said “it’s not OK” for students to graduate college with crushing debt.

“They have to be concerned every moment on how they’ll be able to pay their student loan debt,” instead of focusing on work, family, or trying to buy a home, Mash, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University, said.

The House and Senate proposals, which failed to clear committee in last year’s legislative session, would cost the state about $1 billion a year, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center in Harrisburg. The program would be funded with a mix of tax increases, including a higher state income tax; a severance tax on natural gas drillers; and a “flat tax” on a person’s net worth, among other measures, the analysis indicates.

A memo sent out by Hughes’ office in January seeking co-sponsors for the plan did not explain how the state would pay for the program. Speakers at Wednesday’s rally were also notably silent on that score.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.