DebtFreeCampus

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.

The Solution

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.


Introduction

National student debt totaled more than $1.2 trillion in 2013,  and Pennsylvania public school graduates face some of the highest debt burdens in the country. The routine of borrowing thousands of dollars to finance higher education is not sustainable. Students, educators, parents, and elected officials are looking closely at student debt at public colleges and universities because the issue has become too large to ignore. 

Two states have been in the news this year for proposals to curb student debt. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam recently proposed making community college free for two years by reducing aid to students at four-year colleges,  and the Oregon State Legislature recently voted to set up a commission to study the idea of replacing tuition with a percentage tax on post-graduation income.  The issue of student debt and tuition fees at public higher education institutions is widely recognized as urgent.

These small steps undertaken by Tennessee and Oregon towards reducing student debt come on the heel of a decade of rapid tuition increases across the country.  In 2004, community college cost on average $2,897 each year in 2013 dollars; by 2013 the average cost of a year of community college rose 28% to $3,710. For public four-year universities, average tuition rose from $6,273 in 2004 to $8,756 in 2013, a 40% increase.

Pennsylvania has the third highest public university tuition in the country, and unsurprisingly graduates from its public universities shoulder the third-largest debt burdens. Pennsylvania’s “High Tuition / High Aid” model has failed to protect students from debt: Pennsylvania has perhaps the best State Grant program in the country,  but that model has proven unable to meet the needs of Pennsylvanians and should be replaced. We deserve a system that puts students and families first.

Our operating principle at the Pittsburgh Center for Justice is this: every public campus should be a debt-free campus. No student should have to take out a loan to finance higher education. 

Pennsylvania's Model of Education

Pennsylvania pioneered the model of “High Tuition / High Aid.” The state’s diverse system of higher education encompasses fourteen community colleges, fourteen public universities in the State System of Higher Education, four large State-Related Institutions, one state-owned School of Technology, tens of career and technical schools, and two grant programs. In total, Pennsylvania’s public higher education system educates around 430,000 students at one time, the majority of higher education students in the state. Figure 1 shows the breakdown of enrollment between public schools, private non-profit schools, and private for-profit schools. Map 1 shows the colleges and the amount of debt students take out at each (information on each school can be found at Find Your School).

Map 1: Location and Debt of Each Public College or University

Not only is the public system diverse, it is also high quality. Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pittsburgh are regularly ranked among the best public universities in the country and are often named among the best of all American universities. Pennsylvania’s community colleges regularly provide high-quality instruction that rivals universities, and many students rely on community colleges to prepare themselves for four-year schools and defray high tuition costs. However, tuition rates have rapidly outstripped available aid, and debt levels have skyrocketed.

Figure 2: Average Tuition at Public Two-Year Colleges by State, 2013

Lowest: California, $1,157

Median: Maine, $3,442

14th Highest: Pennsylvania, $4,060

Highest: New Hampshire, $6,952

Pennsylvania has the third-highest university tuition rates in the country and the fourteenth-highest community college tuition rates, 46% and 19% more than the United States median for four-year and two-year schools respectively. A year at a public four-year institution costs on average $12,495, and a year at a public two-year institutions costs on average $4,060 (Figure 2). To put that number in perspective, the University of Wyoming ($4,265) costs about as much as a Pennsylvania community college.

Figure 3: Average Tuition at Public Universities by State, 2013

Lowest: Wyoming, $4,265

Median: Kentucky, $8,245

3rd Highest: Pennsylvania, $12,495

Highest: New Hampshire, $13,961

Not only do PA university students see significantly higher average tuition than the rest of the country (Figure 3), that average obscures an important distinction. Like many other states with high average tuition rates, Pennsylvania has a two-tiered system for four-year education.

The first system comprises the fourteen State System of Higher Education schools (SSHEs) in the state. These SSHEs, like Slippery Rock University, California University, and Bloomsburg University, charge between $8,582 and $9,448 a year  to attend. They educate approximately 115,000 students across the state,  and are primarily located in rural counties.  

Additionally, there are four State Related universities (SREs), which are non-profit institutions that receive direct state funding. These SREs educate approximately 160,000 students, including most of the students pursuing a professional or graduate degree at a public institution.  At Pennsylvania State University (Penn State),  University of Pittsburgh (Pitt),  and Temple University,  students expect to pay from $14,000 to $20,000. Lincoln University (a small, distinguished historically black university) charges $10,566.  Graduate programs at these schools cost up to $45,000 annually.  These are some of the highest public university tuition rates in the country.

These high tuition rates mean that students require significantly more financial aid to attend and complete higher education than their counterparts in lower-tuition states. Up to 8% of PA’s high school students are dissuaded from higher education because of the high tuition rates, and those students are largely students of color, students from low-income families, queer or trans* students, or rural students.  For students who do choose to study at a college or university, the financial aid they need is just not available.

The system currently relies heavily on high tuition rates to finance its operations, but historically, it relied on high tuition and high state appropriations. State appropriations have fallen drastically in the last few years, from $5,674 per full time student in 2007 to $3,875 in 2012. That decline in funding represents one of the largest decreases in state funding in the country, and Pennsylvania spends over $2,000 less per pupil than the United States average.  Extreme tuition rates are the direct counterpart to low state funding.

As state appropriations fell, tuition rose. At Penn State, 79% of General Funds come from tuition and fees and only 14% comes from appropriations; as a comparison, Penn State in 1970 received 32% of its General Funds from tuition and fees and 62% from state appropriations.  This means more students and families have to take on more debt to cover the cost of an education.

As Figure 4 shows, despite significant numbers of students receiving financial aid, and in particular a state system of grants and institutional aid that casts a far wider net than the federal system, the majority of students at State System and State-Related universities take out federal loans. Student aid cannot make up the funding gap caused by low state apppropriations, leaving students on the hook for a signficantly larger share of educational costs.

In essence, lawmakers have abdicated their responsibility to provide high-quality, accessible public education in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Over the last few decades, they slowly eroded state support for education, forcing students and families to finance education themselves. Families have done that largely through debt.

Instead of maintaining high aid, Pennsylvania has implemented a model of High Tuition: High Debt.

*Header Photo Credit

Student Debt

Figure 5: Average Student Debt of Graduates of Public Universities with Debt Plotted Against Average Public University Tuition

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 SSHEs and SREs graduate with student loans, and which total an average of $32,497.  Figure 5 above shows the scale of Pennsylvania’s debt crisis compared to other states. Pennsylvania is the second worst state in the nation for public student debt. 

Pennsylvanian university students graduate with the third-highest debt in the country. 

Collectively, Pennsylvania students acquire $1,381,197,886 ($1.38 billion) in Federal student loans every year, and then four-year students take out an average of 23 cents in private student loans for every 1 dollar of Federal loans.  

To put those numbers in context, the average graduate from a public PA university has more debt than someone purchasing a new car without a down payment, all for the promises of a secure life that a Bachelor’s degree offers. For students with debt who did not complete university, they took on thousands in loans for each year attempted without even that promise.

Across the country, concerned lawmaker, parents, and academics point to the student debt crisis, but few states have such a severe crisis as Pennsylvania. Figures 6 and 7 show that in only five states do more students graduate with debt than in Pennsylvania, and in only two do they graduate with more debt. 

Figure 6: Average Student Debt Of Public University Graduates With Debt By State, 2011

Lowest: New Mexico, $17,722

Median: Maryland, $25,060

3rd Highest: Pennsylvania, $32,497

Highest: Delaware, $33,649

Source: College In Sight

Figure 7: Percent Of Students Who Graduate With Debt From Public Universities by State, 2011

Lowest: New Mexico, 40%

Median: Tennessee, 58%

6th Highest: Pennsylvania, 72%

Highest: New Hampshire, 80%

Source: College In Sight

Comparatively, even many other states with high student debt have fewer students acquiring debt. For example, Delaware’s students with debt graduate with $33,649 on average, but 56% of students graduate with debt. Those numbers are still abysmal and are nothing to be celebrated, but if 56% of students in Pennsylvania graduated with debt instead of 72%, then almost 37,000 more Pennsylvanians in school now would enter adulthood without student loans. 

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. 

This debt has a life-long cost. For a graduate with Pennsylvania’s average debt, a 10-year repayment period and an interest rate of 4.9% (the average rate for education loans), the loan of $32,497 would cost $41,171 in real dollars over its lifetime. That is an additional $8,674 that the average debtor pays. That means the average Pennsylvanian student with a loan pays 21 cents more for each dollar borrowed just in the course of the loan.

Demos, a policy institute, examined the lifelong impact of debt. They estimate that an average student debt burden for dual-headed household with bachelors’ degrees leads to a lifetime wealth loss of nearly four times the original debt. This loss comes from the direct costs of the loan and its impact on household savings and expenses. For households with even larger debt levels or with lower expected incomes, the wealth loss from debt will be even higher. The average graduate with debt from a public Pennsylvanian four-year university can expect a lifetime wealth loss of almost $130,000. A household with two indebted graduates will have over a quarter of a million dollars less wealth at retirement than their debt-free counterparts. This means that student debt not only adds an obligation and stressor at every stage of adulthood, it exacts a lifelong cost on borrowers.

The graduates of Pennsylvania’s post-secondary institutions enter adulthood with an extraordinary debt burden, especially as young people graduate to limited job opportunities and high youth unemployment and underemployment rates. 

Our public universities might best be thought of as a place students go to mortgage their future out. The High Tuition: High Debt model of public education has failed us.

*Header Photo Credit

Disproportionate Impacts

Pennsylvania’s High Tuition: High Debt model of education 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.

Middle and Low Income Students

Debt and tuition are financial barriers to access, and students from families less able to pay face the brunt of those roadblocks. These is particularly pernitious in rural areas. Financial barriers in the forms of a poverty minimum wage and high tuition and fees force young people to drop out or never start college, and those students who do graduate shoulder tens of thousands in debt. 

In urban and suburban communities, 82.2% of students in better performing school districts were planning on pursuing higher education, compared to 70.6% of students in poor performing school districts. In rural communities, students in better performing districts planned to attend higher education at 68.2% compared to 64.1% in poorer performing districts.

The long term disinvestment in public schools, especially in low-income urban and rural areas, significantly discourages students from planning to attend higher education. Rural students are additionally discouraged from pursuing higher education compared to their urban peers.

Students who cannot or choose not to pursue post-secondary education cite these financial barriers as a principal reason. The need to work and the cost of tuition are the two most important reasons a student did not attend or dropped out of college.  A full one in four students wanted to attend college or university but couldn’t begin or complete their degree. 8% of all high school students cited tuition and fees as a principal factor in not pursuing a degree. 

The impact of these financial barriers makes access to and completion of higher education particularly difficult for students from lower-income families. And with the scope of tuition and fees in the state, there are few families for whom these costs are not significant.

Students of Color

Students of color are especially impacted by tuition hikes. 

More students of color graduate with more debt. For people of color who attend and graduate from a four-year college, nationally 80% of black students graduate with debt compared to 65% of white students, and black graduates with debt take on almost $4,000 more on average. Hispanic students are also more likely to graduate with debt than white students, at 67%, but graduate with slightly less debt.  Those students who are able to complete college enter the job market with significantly more debt.

Graduates of color from two-year and four-year colleges and universities have significantly higher unemployment and underemployment rates than their white counterparts.  Graduates of color who are able to get employment also face a persistent racialized wage gap. 

From  debt burdens to after-graduation salaries and employment, students of color face an extraordinary additional burden exacerbated by high tuition.

Queer and Trans Students

Pennsylvanian queer and trans people face additional challenges that make accessing higher education more difficult. From primary and secondary education to adult employment discrimination, these extra burdens make accessing the state’s higher education system and paying off student debt more difficult.

The vast majority of queer kids experienced verbal harassment, 61% of students faced sexual harassment, 53% saw cyberbullying, and 42% had their personal property damaged or stolen. A full 34% of queer kids faced physical harassment for their sexual orientation, and 15% of students were physically assaulted in the past year. This means that Pennsylvania’s schools are an unsafe environment for most queer students, and some are unable to continue their education due to fear for their personal safety. For students who do continue, many have lower GPAs and fewer college options than their straight or cis peers.

A supportive pre-K through 12 school experience is an essential element to success in higher education, but nation-wide 78% of trans students were harassed in school, and 35% reported that harassment escalated to physical assault. One in six trans students left school to escape harassment, and more than half of all bullied trans students reported attempting suicide. 

Graduating from high school is difficult enough for many queer and trans youth. Homelessness and a lack of family support is another critical issue for queer and trans young people, with this group comprising an estimated 20-40% of the 1.6 million homeless youth nation-wide.  Facing high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, violence including police and state violence, and economic instability, tuition and debt are burdens that many queer and trans people cannot shoulder. In particular, queer and trans people of color are particularly marginalized by economic barriers to access.

For those students who are able to complete higher education, another challenge awaits. Pennsylvania, like many states across the country, does not provide legal protection for queer and trans people in the workplace.  For queer and trans graduates from Pennsylvania’s higher education system, paying off crushing student loan debt is more difficult with employment discrimination.

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DebtFreeCampus

Students, parents, and allies across Pennsylvania are ready for a different system. We deserve a public education system that works for all people, that allows everyone to pursue higher education regardless of family income or circumstances, and that ensures that every student can graduate without student debt.

Education is a fundamental right recognized almost everywhere in the world. In the United States, education is free everywhere from kindergarten through high school, and advocates are pushing to extend that to preschool as well. In many European and Latin American countries, education is free from preschool through university. We affirm the ideal that any student of any age should be able to educate themselves at a public institution without going into debt to do it.

In the United States in 2014, there are only two substantial paths into economic security and the middle class. The first is to have a union in the workplace, an option that is largely unavailable as freeloader legislation is passed by state legislatures, companies openly intimidate or fire workers who talk about a union, and large business unions decline to organize new shops.

The second path to economic security is to get a degree. Whether it is an associate’s degree, technical or professional training, or a bachelor’s degree, completing higher education opens up new job opportunities. 

As higher education becomes more necessary for a living wage, requiring young people and professionals to pay exorbitant fees and take on student debt for that economic security is more clearly indefensible.

Student debt is in essence an economic security tax on the middle and lower class. Most people who graduate without student debt are wealthy, and most student debt is issued by the government debt. Students whose families cannot pay tens of thousands each year for school have to take out student debt to pursue higher education. These loans impose a lifetime wealth loss of nearly 4 dollars for every 1 dollar borrowed and interest payments of up to 21 cents for every dollar borrowed.

In Pennsylvania, those interest payments on state loans go back to the state as profit, which the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency uses to provide more loans and grants to students. Even those middle and low income students with average debt and a rate of 4.9% who pay off their loans in a ten-year time frame end up paying an additional $8,674, mostly to the government.

Students with government loans therefore face a substantial de facto tax increase, while wealthy families get government subsidies through existing state appropriations and tax handouts.  This is a situation that places a huge cost on young people, leaving the vast majority shouldering tremendous student debt burdens upon graduation. 

A debt-free campus might never be achievable, but it is an ideal to pursue.

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. It is clear that Pennsylvanian students regularly borrow for both of those reasons. Table 1 shows the distribution of student aid and federal student loans by institution type. The majority of university students receive financial aid and take federal loans. In contrast, just under half of college students receive aid and a third take out a federal loan.

Part of the reason for this disparity is that Pennsylvania’s community colleges have large numbers of part-time or casual students: only 51,000 of the total 143,000 students studying at community colleges are full-time. Many of those part-time students do not apply for financial aid, meaning that students that are full-time are often receiving financial aid and borrowing.Those who do receive aid receive significant amount relative to tuition, at almost $4,100 in average aid. The amount that students borrow is also large, over $5,000 each year. The average federal loan is greater than tuition and fees, even without including financial aid. 

Similarly almost six in ten students at the State System for Higher Education schools receive financial aid and almost three in four borrow from the federal government. For a student receiving the average federal student loan and financial aid package, they are borrowing $3,000 more annually than tuition and fees. Students then take additional state and private loans. At both CCs and SSHEs, students borrow more than their tuition bill. 

In contrast, at the State-Related Universities, tuition is so high that almost all students receive financial aid and almost all students borrow huge sums of money but those amounts do not exceed tuition and fees. An average tuition bill of between $1,000 and $6,000 remains for a student receiving the average financial aid and federal loan. Students then take out additional state and private loans, some to cover living expenses and some to cover remaining tuition and fees.

All of this data shows what we already know: large numbers of students are borrowing huge sums of money, much of which pays for tuition bills but some of which goes to living expenses. The poverty-wage jobs available to students do not allow them to pursue a full-time education and work enough hours at or around minimum wage to fully fund their living expenses.

Indeed the Census Bureau reports that the vast majority of college students work while studying. Almost three in four worked in 2011, 20% full time and 52% less than full time. More than half, however, worked during the school year, and of those, half worked over 20 hours a week. With work/study programs included as part of the Federal Student Aid packages, many of those working students are employed by their own college. Many people working in college are paid at or around Pennsylvania’s minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is as low as it can go, at the Federal minimum of $7.25. 

That minimum is a poverty wage for anyone. Table 2 shows living wage estimates for Pennsylvania. The Living Wage Calculator produced by MIT estimates that the average living wage for a single adult is $18,032 annually, or $8.67 an hour. For a single parent, that figure doubles to $17.76 an hour. For students from all walks of life, the poverty-wage employment available to many is insufficient to meet students’ basic needs. It is unsurprising that many students borrow more than their unfunded tuition: students working even full time at the minimum wage would be hard-pressed to support themselves, let alone pay the costs of tuition.

Between the two financial barriers to post-secondary education of  high tuition and insufficient wage income, students rely heavily on debt to fund their education. Pennsylvania’s 430,000 public students deserve better than debt. Table 3 shows the aggregate debt, aid, and tuition figures by institution type. Unfunded tuition is the billed cost to families, the total amounts of tuition less total amounts of aid. This is the main driver of student debt in the Commonwealth.

In order to ensure economic security and equitable public education, Pennsylvania must implement two policies.

First, 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. 

Second, 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. If the minimum wage were a living wage, most students would be able to provide for themselves without taking on debt, even if they have little or no family support and even if they take a heavy course load.

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.  

Free education and a living minimum wage, that is the policy option best able to eliminate student debt and enable every person to pursue the education they need.

*Header Photo Credit: Justin Ling, CC-BY-2.0

Alternatives

There are two other policies proposed by people who want to reduce student debt, but neither should be adopted. 

The first is increasing student aid. Pennsylvania’s State Grant Program is often lauded as the best model in the nation, and has historically had high funding levels. Despite that, the average state grant aid per student was only $115 more in 2009 than the U.S. average, $742 vs. $627. The Grant Program disbursed just over $495 million in grants and financial aid to students in 2013, but the Agency that administers the program serviced $243.8 billion in loans.  Pennsylvania puts some of the profits from the student loans it services back into the grant program, but of course the interest on existing student debt is not enough to significantly reduce future student debt. In 2012, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appropriated $436.3 million annually for the PHEAA State Grant Program. That funding fell to just under $400 million in 2013.

With such small amounts of aid, it is no surprise that 72% of PA public university students graduate with an average of $32,497 in debt. To eliminate debt for four-year student at public universities alone, the state would have to appropriate significantly more every year.

This debt-free model has two fundamental problems. First, it has high overhead costs. Universities and state grant agencies have to  hire and maintain high numbers of staff to handle hundreds of thousands of individual cases across the state. Students and families have to complete long applications that demand a lot of personal information, and the system poorly serves students who can rely only less-than-expected family support.

Second, the system aligns individual incentives in a way that would leave students behind or raise the state’s expenditures beyond expected levels. The state could just increase the grants available to students, in which case it does not take seriously the responsibility to provide a debt-free campus. Or it would make some commitment to provide additional grants to students who express additional need. Then students would have an incentive to raise their expressed funding needs to get more money from the state.

The Pittsburgh Center’s proposal solves those problems by first making state appropriations proportional to enrollment, charging nothing for tuition, and making a living minimum wage. This leaves any question of a misrepresentation of financial need behind. Second, it aligns the incentives of the state, individuals, and institutions. Students, families, and schools would look primarily to the state to solve budget shortfalls, putting rectors and students on the same side when pushing for increased state funding. The state would know that all of its appropriations were going as directed to education, eliminating the potential for individual fraud or waste. This is a much more elegant solution with far less overhead and far fewer costs.

The other policy is the so-called “income-contingent” loan repayment, the Oregon proposal, where an additional income tax would be levied on just those students who received tuition-free, loan-free education. Students from low- and middle-income families could choose to either attend for free with a future tax hike or pursue the traditional high-debt method of higher education completion.  In effect, either choice would would institute a higher tax rate on these students than their higher-income counterparts, levying an economic security tax on adults trying to achieve economic security while allowing intergenerational income inequality to continue unabated. And of course, students would still need to pay the costs of living, which for many is out of reach on a poverty minimum wage.

The Oregon proposal seems to be a timidity to increase tax rates on the privileged. It is imposing a de facto tax hike on the poor and middle class, disguising it as aid, and leaving the wealthy untouched. This is a deeply flawed proposed solution to a deeply entrenched problem.

At the end of the day, the clear and progressive solution of free education and a living minimum wage is the best way to end student debt.

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Minimum Wage

The impact of an increase in the minimum wage can not easily be overstated. The current poverty minimum wage of $7.25 leaves far too many unable to support themselves even without the added burden of tuition and fees. Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, as Federal legislators are proposing, would allow students of all ages to more fully provide for themselves while pursuing an education, opening up the space for intellectual exploration and job training.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the proposed minimum wage increase would affect almost one in five workers in Pennsylvania when fully implemented, with young people most strongly impacted. Especially important, almost 60% of part-time and 45% of mid-time workers (under 34 hours per week) would receive a pay increase. Over 18% of Pennsylvanian children in households across the state would be helped. These economic impacts would benefit Pennsylvanians of all education levels.

Students, however, would see strong benefits from this minimum wage increase. A 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. 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.

An increase to $10.10 would return the minimum wage to its 1968 levels. $10.10/hr translates to less than $20,000 a year for full-time workers. This increase would make a meaningfull and impactful difference in the lives of more than one million Pennsylvanians, and not least its 430,000 public college students.

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Cost

These programs would not be free. The scale and scope of student debt means a policy to eliminate it would make people’s lives more manageable even as it raised state expenditures. Ending tuition will be the main driver of costs. A living minimum wage might increase government expenditures marginally—by requiring that the state pay its own employees a living wage—but is ultimately a small cost, and is not examined further in this report.

Free education will require a significant but manageable state expenditure increase. The revenue required to provide a debt-free campus can be raised in a manner than provides for an equitable tax distribution and reduces intergenerational income inequality, as shown below.

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, shown in Table 4. This unfunded tuition covers the almost 430,000 students in Pennsylvania’s public higher education system, and meeting that lack of funding would make education free for every student.

Many assumptions went into this calculation. First, the figures for tuition revenue reflect all tuition revenue, but the figures for aid reflect only undergraduate student aid. This means that schools with significant graduate student enrollment have financial aid excluded from this calculation, meaning the real cost of free education should be lower than advertised. This is particularly true for the State-Related universities, with large graduate and professional degree programs.

Second, these calculations do not exclude tuition paid by out-of-state and international students. It is likely that policy makers will want to make education free for Pennsylvanian students but charge some tuition for out-of-state and international students. Adopting that policy would also reduce the cost of free education.

Finally, this assumes either that the Federal government would be willing to maintain its per-student expenditures unchanged after adopting free education, as a block grant to the state or as individualized grants to the individual universities, or that the state pays the remaining tuition bill after Federal aid is disbursed.. If the Federal government chose instead to withhold student aid funds, then the cost of free education would increase.

In concert with instituting a living minimum wage, state lawmakers could end student debt for the 430,000 current public system students for approximately $2.6 billion.

There is the additional question of increased enrollment. Certainly more students will enter the public system if it costs less. The question is how many and at what cost. 

There are four cohorts to look to for increased enrollment. The first is out-of-state and international students. and Pennsylvania residents studying outside of the state. The impact on enrollment from outside of Pennsylvania would depend greatly on the policy that Pennsylvania adopts. Perhaps Pennsylvania passes reciprocity agreements with other states, charging non-residents however much Pennsylvanians students would pay attending the state system in their state. Perhaps Pennsylvania only offers free education to students from places that offer Pennsylvanians free education. The policies adopted by the legislature would significantly change the impact on out-of-state enrollment, and so is not examined further.

The second cohort is Pennsylvania high schoolers currently dissuaded from pursuing postsecondary education. The Learning Alliance for Higher Education found that 8% of students say they are not pursuing higher education because of cost. Other students attempt college but drop out or take time off because of financial barriers. If 8% more high schoolers pursued higher education, and enrollments rose at public colleges and universities by 8%, then the cost to make education free would increase to $2.85 billion.

The third cohort is the students studying at for-profit and non-profit colleges and universities. Many of the students at Pennsylvania’s students non-profit universities come from other states, but regardless a total of 302,000 students study at Pennsylvania’s non-profit colleges and another 68,500 students study at Pennsylvania’s for-profit colleges. 

If the state eliminated tuition at its public universities, how many students who would have chosen a non-profit or for-profit school will choose a public one? There is no clear answer there. Many students at private universities are being ill-served, especially students at for-profit colleges, and it is likely that many would enroll in community colleges instead. In contrast, the four-year non-profit universities often offer a different educational experience from a public college or have a great reputation or specialty. Schools like University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, and Swarthmore all offer a particular and distinct education to students, and it seems likely that many students would choose to remain at non-profit universities. Also the presence of a free public option will likely cause non-profits to lower their tuition, reducing the number of students transferring.

The students most likely to transfer to the public system are also the least expensive students. The average per-student cost to make education free at a two-year college is under $600, while it costs almost $12,500 per student to make education free at the state-related schools. The two-year for-profit and two-year non-profit schools educate about 84,000 students at one time, but even assuming an 8% increase in enrollment, educating all of those students at free public community colleges would only cost $50 million.Table 5 shows the additional cost of educating all of these students at Pennsylvania’s community colleges. It is those students at non-profit four-year schools who would drive significantly increased costs if they transferred to the public system, but they also attend those schools that offer a fundamentally different educational experience to their students.

There are many factors driving enrollment, but it is possible to establish a maximum and middle estimation of costs. Table 5 offers various scenarios. If every student in Pennsylvania moved to a public college, the cost for free education would rise to $5.05 billion. With an additional 8% increase in enrollment, $5.5 billion. If half of the students in non-profit and for-profit institutions transferred to public ones, costs would rise to $3.8 billion. With the enrollment increase, $4.2 billion. Realistically, eliminating financial barriers to public higher education will encourage higher enrollment in the public system, and the final cost will likely fall within $2.8 billion and $4 billion. 

The fourth cohort is retraining for adults, continuing or lifelong education, and new residents drawn by the promise of free education. None of these should have a large impact on enrollment. For adults seeking to complete a degree or obtain a new degree or skill, many already have their educations paid for by their employers or by government training programs. Similarly, many public colleges and universities already let retired adults audit a course or two each semester for free. Adult enrollment might increase, but not drastically. As for attracting new residents to the state, it is difficult to estimate the impact. Moving an entire family to Pennsylvania to gain residency is a large decision that relatively few people might make. That said, if families relocate for free education and a living minimum wage for their children, they will also pay taxes to the state, paying for the increased expenditures over time. If young people relocate to the state in order to gain residency, not only will they pay taxes, they will be introduced to the state and might be enticed to become permanent residents as they make connections and build a life here. While it seems unlikely that huge numbers of people will move in, residency requirements mean that new people will pay taxes and, as people with or seeking a degree, if they stay long enough they will raise more revenue than it cost to put them through school. Just as with primary and secondary school, education is a right, but it is not free. If more people move to Pennsylvania and pay taxes here because of free education, all the better. 

The cost to eliminate financial barriers to Pennsylvanian higher education is significant but manageable. The Pennsylvania State Legislature budget totaled $27.7 billion in 2012. Ending student debt for current public students would increase expenditures by about 9.5%. This increase would not be insignificant, but it would not break the bank either.

 

*Header Photo Credit: Rdsmith4, CC-BY-SA-2.5

Revenue

The radical tax hike needed to end tuition for current public students 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. Figure 8 compares the revenue raised to the cost of making education free.

Here are three proposals to raise revenue to end student debt. These proposals raise significantly more money than required by design. Policy is messy and complicated and the final cost of free education depends on how the policy is designed and how many students transfer to the public sector. This excess revenue leaves policy options flexible and open.

Respected economists across the Commonwealth estimate that the following three proposals would raise over $5.4 billion annually.

 

1.

 Instituting Texas’ effective severance tax on natural gas would raise enough to make education free at Pennsylvania’s Career and Technical schools, Community Colleges, and State System for Higher Education schools. Not only that, the revenue raised would grow far faster than inflation.

 

Replacing Pennsylvania’s tax-handout “Impact Fee” with Texas’ low effective severance tax rate of 6.551% would increase 2012 revenue from $229 million to $802 million, a total of $573 million. By 2018 that increase would total $1,508 million. 

The total cost to end debt at Pennsylvania’s CTS, CCs, and SSHEs was $557.4 million in 2012.
A low severance tax on natural gas drilling would raise more than enough revenue to make education free for 261,000 students across the Commonwealth. If fracking continues its expanse across the state, this revenue should increase even further. 

 
 

2.

 In 2012 alone, Pennsylvania distributed almost $3.2 billion in corporate tax handouts. Pennsylvania lawmakers could raise $3.2 billion in revenue each year by ending the corporate welfare written into the tax code since 2003. 

Pennsylvania, like many states, has pursued the so-called “Race to the Bottom” policy of corporate tax handouts, slashing effective tax rates and offering expensive incentives in the hope of enticing large national companies to open new facilities and move jobs into the state. Of course, the impact of the policy is easily seen: companies that move into the state pay few or no taxes for however long they stay in the state, and then a few years later they threaten to move to another state if they don’t get more money.

The employment impacts of these corporate tax incentives are minimal, and not all equally distributed. Several large tax programs go into this sum, and undoubtedly some of these programs are more effective than others. 

Pennsylvania could keep one-third of those corporate tax handouts in place and still make education free at the four State-Related Universities. 

 

3.

 Pennsylvania is #8 on the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s Terrible Ten list of states with the most regressive tax policies. This index measures how much families with different income levels pay on average in state and local taxes. 

 

Middle income Pennsylvanian families pay about 10% of their income in state and local taxes, and low-income families pay an average of 12%.  In contrast, the top 20% of families pay an average of 8.2% or less. The top 1% by income of Pennsylvania’s families pay only 4.4%.

That means that the wealthiest Pennsylvanian families pay less than half what the average family pays, and the poorest families pay almost three times more. 

One proposal by the Keystone Research Center would raise revenue while increasing tax forgiveness to low-income Pennsylvanians. This 2009 study estimated that the following tax rate change would raise $1.65 billion in 2011 alone.

The Keystone Research Center proposed raising the tax rate on earned income and interest to 3.40%, increasing the tax rate on unearned income and other income to 4%, and increasing tax forgiveness for families. This would raise taxes by $6 for the poorest families, by $76 for middle class families, and by $709 for the wealthiest. The 1% of incomes would pay $5,263 more a year.

Of course, Pennsylvania need not pursue this exact policy. If lawmakers wanted to further increase revenue from the wealthiest or further reduce taxes for middle and low income families, the revenue collected could be significantly higher or lower. Regardless, there is room to raise revenue in an equitable fashion.

If Pennsylvania politicians taxed citizens according to their ability to pay instead of their ability to pay for lobbyists, the distribution and sources of revenue would be drastically different.

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. 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.

*Header Photo Credit: TheZachMorrisExperience, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Organizing for Action

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, so what will it take to make Pennsylvania public campuses debt-free campuses?

Pennsylvania students should organize campus and state-wide student associations, funded through a student fee of a couple dollars a semester. Students in each school would hold votes to create politicized student unions funded through a fee levy and run through direct democracy. If every school levied a fee of just $1/semester, students would raise almost $1 million annually state-wide.

There are many American states with state-wide student unions funded this way. Some also have school or school-system student unions. This student union model is particularly strong in the Canadian province of Quebec, where almost every university faculty or even program (like Political Science or Engineering) has a student association.

These associations make a difference. States with an independent student association see students graduate with almost $2,000 less in debt, and 5% fewer students graduate with debt.  If Pennsylvania had public student debt outcomes comparable to the average of states with independent student associations, then 64,500 more students currently studying would graduate debt free, and those with debt would have over $9,000 less. These results are particularly impressive given that states with student associations are often states where the historical consensus around high public outlays for education eroded to earliest. 

Student associations should focus on building power across the state by organizing students at each campus and each school. Research into state appropriations has shown that decentralization is an important factor in determining per-student appropriations. States where the governing boards for the state systems were centralized had lower appropriations, while having many governors of many universities acting independently had higher appropriations. Because lobbying is done with one voice by one organization instead of many, and it seems likely that having a centralized student voice would also reduce the effectiveness of organizing. 

One explanation of this phenomenon might be the way that tuition rates are decided. In the Journal of Higher Education, James Rusk described that method, writing, “rather than develop tuition prices in conformance with an agreed-upon and openly debated state policy, states seem to have set and changed prices in an incremental, unplanned fashion. This gives rise to the suspicion that this important public policy issue often has been decided on a “herd instinct” basis”.  If in fact politicians set tuition based on a “herd instinct,” decentralized relationships with and pressure on many lawmakers would be more effective at changing the state’s consensus around tuition. Students should focus on building a decentralized, directly democratic network of student unions to better influence policy changes.

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.

*Header Photo Credit: Justin Ling

Conclusion

If you are ready to stand up to student debt, take action now. Share your support on Twitter and Facebook and sign the petition on the Pittsburgh Center for Justice’s website. If you are a student at a Pennsylvanian public college or university, now is the time to organize. Send us an email.

Pennsylvania’s High Tuition: High Debt model lets too many young people enter adulthood with crushing debt and fewer opportunities. Students deserve not only less student debt, but no student debt. It is time to stand up, to fight to make each public campus a DebtFreeCampus.

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*Header Photo CreditJeffrey M. Vinocur, CC-BY-2.5