End Student Debt in Pennsylvania's Public Colleges
Executive Summary: Pennsylvania’s Student Debt Crisis
Pennsylvania is the second worst state in the country for public student debt. When examining both the size of loans and the percentage of student with loans, only in New Hampshire do more students graduate with more debt from public universities.
The scope of the student debt crisis in Pennsylvania cannot be overstated. Nationwide, 59% of students at public universities graduate with debt, and they graduate with an average of $24,866. In Pennsylvania, 72% of students at public universities graduate with student loans, which total an average of $32,497. Pennsylvania has embraced a model of High Tuition: High Debt, with the third highest university tuition and fourteenth highest community college tuition in the country.
Pennsylvania’s High Tuition: High Debt path does not impact us all equally. The financial barriers to higher education erected by state legislators particularly impact middle and low income students, students of color, queer and trans students, and rural students. Very few students however graduate from Pennsylvania’s public system without debt.
Students take out loans for two general reasons. The first is to pay for the direct costs of college, such as tuition and fees, supplies, and transportation. The second is to supplement their income, making up for the wages lost due to studying. Pennsylvanian students regularly borrow for both of those reasons.
No person should have to take out a loan in order to attend a public school.
In order to ensure economic security and equitable public education, in order to end public student debt, Pennsylvania must implement two policies.
First, Pennsylvania must make its minimum wage a living wage, so that students and professionals can pursue higher education at their discretion and still support themselves. Federal legislators are looking at $10.10/hr, a significant improvement over the current wage but still low. A Pennsylvanian student working part-time during the year (an average of 15 hours a week, or 750 hours a year) at minimum wage would earn an additional $2,138 before taxes if the minimum wage were increased to $10.10. For young people, that additional income would be enough to cover almost all of those living expenses that students currently cover with loans. Students who work more hours will earn an even larger increase. This minimum wage would allow students to cover their living expenses debt-free, an important development.
Second, Pennsylvania must implement free education across the Commonwealth for students at its career and technical schools, community colleges, State System of Higher Education public universities, and State Related universities.
Free education is the elimination of tuition and fees for a school’s academic activities and other necessary elements of student life, such as student access to the internet, computers, and libraries. Other fees and costs, such as athletic and recreational fees and on-campus housing programs should be optional.
In 2012, students faced $2.6 billion in unfunded tuition. $2 billion of that shortfall was in the State-Related Institutions, $471 million in the State System for Higher Education, $78 million in the community college system, and $7 million in the College and Technical school system. This unfunded tuition covers the almost 430,000 students in Pennsylvania’s public higher education system. In concert with instituting a living minimum wage, state lawmakers could end student debt in the public system for approximately $2.6 billion.
Between these two programs, nearly every student should be able to pursue higher education without taking on debt. No student would be barred from higher education because of an inability to pay, and the pressures of many of the other barriers to higher education could be lessened, as students could take fewer courses at a time if need be.
Implementing the Solution
The tax increase needed for debt-free education would raise revenue to about the same per capita amount as Arkansas. At $2.6 billion, the per capita increase would be about $200 annually, leaving Pennsylvania’s revenue per person lower than all of its neighboring states except Ohio.
There are positive ways to raise this revenue that not only help students and young people pursue an education but that increase equity and economic security in this state. Pennsylvania can raise the revenue to end student debt without a significant cost to middle-class families by making natural gas companies pay for the resources they take out of the ground and by ending corporate handouts. Serious efforts to make taxes fair for Pennsylvanian families could raise even more revenue. Respected economists across the Commonwealth estimate that these three proposals would raise over $5.4 billion annually, twice the cost of free education. Using these revenue-raisers could not only be painless, they could have positive impacts on the state while reducing income inequality and providing for debt-free education in the Pennsylvania.
Moving from a High Tuition: High Debt model to a No Tuition: No Debt model is vital, but it is a large policy change. No one expects that politicians will just step up and end student debt on their own.
Pennsylvania students should organize campus and state-wide politicized student unions funded through a fee levy and run through direct democracy. If Pennsylvania had public student debt outcomes comparable to the average of states with independent student union, then 64,500 more students currently studying would graduate debt free, and those with debt would have over $9,000 less.
Pennsylvanian students should chart a democratic and participatory path in line with the labor union saying: “big, fast, bold.”
It is time for us to end student debt.