By Thomas J. Botzman
Across the country, numerous state and federal proposals are on the table to provide students with free tuition at public universities. While free sounds enticing, it is not a very good deal for taxpayers who will pick up the tab and for students who will face limited options.
Oftentimes, students are eligible for publicly funded, need-based financial aid at the federal or state level. Federal aid is most often in the form of the Pell Grant or Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG).
In the Keystone State, the primary support for college students is the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). Students and their families combine their contribution with Pell, SEOG, PHEAA, and a variety of subsidized and unsubsidized loans to pay for college.
Let us use the state grants as an example of how this works for taxpayers, who fund both public higher education, and to a lesser extent, private higher education.
The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania (AICUP) 2017-18 data indicates the cost per degree awarded is $17,786 for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, $15,998 for state-related universities, and $2,206 for the private colleges and universities in the state that comprise AICUP.
Since AICUP schools do not receive direct state appropriations, the state funds are the sum of the Institutional Assistance Grant and the PHEAA state grants that follow the student to his or her college of choice.
Public institution students also are eligible for the PHEAA state grant. These figures do not include capital spending for facilities, which is also more generous toward public institutions.
Another way to view this data is that 10 percent of state funding goes to AICUP institutions that enroll 42 percent of the students and award 47 percent of the bachelor degrees statewide, according to AICUP.
These bachelor degrees include more than 11,000 science, technology, engineering and math degrees from AICUP institutions, compared to less than 10,000 for state-related universities and less than 3,000 for the state system of higher education.
The AICUP report also disputes the perception that students routinely graduate with higher levels of student debt, compared to public schools. Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, average student loan debt for graduates of AICUP institutions was lower than that of the public institutions in four of the five years.
On average, AICUP graduates accrue about $37,000 in debt to finance their college degrees – less than $400 more than their peers from public colleges. A combination of generous institutional financial aid, donor scholarships, and better four-year graduation rates make for the dead heat.
Misericordia University students, for example, typically finish a four-year degree in four years (in the 2018-19 academic year, the average student completed his or her degree in 4.1 years).
Less time to earn a degree equates to more time working in their chosen career path, again providing a greater return to the taxpayer. The perceived debt disadvantage for both private college students and taxpayers who support those students simply is not real.
Taxpayers invest in higher education to prepare for a more prosperous and successful society.
Our investment in all students, including those attending private higher education, provides a solid base for all of us. The smart choice is to continue attaching funding to students, thus giving them the choice of which brand of education aligns best with their hopes and capacity.
Thomas J. Botzman is the president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., the oldest four-year institution of higher education in Luzerne County. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.