“Heated budget battles” were raging in Harrisburg last year when state Rep. Eric Nelson stopped by the Hempfield Home Depot.
Unexpectedly, he ran into a young man who coached in youth football. As Nelson and the former player chatted, the man explained he worked at the home improvement store to pay for his training at Triangle Tech.
During that conversation, Nelson said something else was “rattling” in his head – the $ 550 million that Pennsylvania was slated to give the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Temple to provide in-state tuition discounts for their students in 2021.
“I thought, ‘Why should he not be able to participate and receive these tax dollars?'” Nelson said. “He’s actually paying taxes and paying his school, but because he’s not going to the big three, he’s not allowed to participate.”
The brief interaction sparked the idea for a statewide college voucher program, which would redirect money from Pitt, Penn State and Temple and give it directly to in-state students at all universities, private colleges, community colleges and technical schools in Pennsylvania.
Nine months after announcing the program, Nelson plans to introduce a bill this month – and he thinks he could have the votes to begin redirecting funds as early as this year.
As the Hempfield Republican continues to push for college vouchers, the proposal has received fervent support or strong objection from local lawmakers, universities and community members.
What is it?
For nearly six decades, Pennsylvania lawmakers have provided state-related universities with general support funding through nonpreferred appropriation bills passed in the state budget. The schools use this money to provide tuition discounts for their in-state students.
Under the college voucher program, the roughly $ 580 million that Pitt, Penn State and Temple should receive would go directly to all in-state students. (Lincoln University, an HBCU in suburban Philadelphia, is the only state-related university that would be exempt from the proposal, as it “directly needs” state funding for survival, Nelson said.)
“It’s a large chunk of money that is only going to our three wealthiest universities,” Nelson said. “It’s time for a change.”
The state would redirect the money to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which would distribute it to full-time, in-state students at all post-secondary education schools.
If the voucher program comes to fruition, students whose household income is under $ 100,000 would receive up to $ 8,000 each year. Students whose household income is between $ 100,000 and $ 250,000 would receive up to $ 4,000 every year.
Nelson says the program would impact 41,000 additional students in Pennsylvania. He imagines that Pitt, Penn State and Temple’s funds would be phased into the program over several years.
Currently, the only state to adopt a college voucher program is Colorado, which provides a stipend to residents attending public and eligible private universities, according to Laura Perna, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.
A “mixed evaluation” of the program, which was established in 2004, found that in its first two years enrollment in the state declined.
While Perna acknowledged that Colorado and its program are not “directly comparable” to Pennsylvania, she said this evaluation “raises questions” about the efficacy of a voucher system in the Keystone State.
In response to the claim that voucher programs could harm enrollment, Nelson pointed to the “success” of PHEAA.
“One of the benefits of expanding PHEAA is that it is an existing, successful system that all students are already working within,” he said. “It’s just PHEAA is currently underfunded.”
‘A real college affordability problem’
Alvin Maloy believes this program could offer life-changing money to impoverished youth.
Maloy, who sits on the education committee of the Greensburg-Jeannette NAACP, said not all students are “suited for” universities such as Pitt and Penn State. For some students who attend community college or technical school, $ 8,000 every year would be like “hitting the lottery,” he said.
“We give (students) this dream about doing well in school,” Maloy said. “They do great in school. Now what? How do they pay for (college or technical school)? ”
Nelson said under the voucher program, community college tuition would be “completely covered” without raising taxes.
Annual tuition for county residents at Westmoreland County Community College is $ 4,140. At the Community College of Allegheny County, it’s $ 3,540 for county residents.
Statewide, Pennsylvania’s in-state tuition averages $ 14,812, as of 2021. The national average is $ 9,212.
Only New Hampshire and Vermont have more expensive in-state tuition than Pennsylvania.
Perna acknowledged the voucher program’s effort to help families is a “positive aspect,” but she raised concerns that the program does not plan to provide additional funding.
“I worry that this is a proposal that would basically shift things around without adding any new resources into a system (with) a real college affordability problem,” Perna said.
Additionally, she said the program could redirect students from Pitt, Penn State and Temple to other schools. Nelson said he hopes the system will create “direct competition” between all learning institutions in Pennsylvania.
“Why should a nursing student at Pitt receive special incentives when a nursing student at IUP or Saint Vincent does not receive those special incentives?” he said.
This competition and other facets of the program could have a direct impact on the local economy.
Typically, when universities lose state funding, their tuition costs go up and enrollment goes down, Perna said. This could harm Pennsylvania’s economy. However, the program could also increase enrollment at other institutions, leading to economic benefits, she said.
“Perhaps there could be benefits to the communities and economies in which those institutions are located,” Perna said.
Implications for Pitt, Penn State
State Sen. Jay Costa – who sits on the boards of Pitt, Duquesne and CCAC – believes the voucher program is not the “right approach” to college affordability in the state.
The Forest Hills Democrat is “happy to work with folks on both sides of the aisle” to increase higher education funding, but he does not support Nelson’s program.
“I think a trusted university will be thoughtful in the work that they do and has the economy of scale to be able to drive this out in a more efficient way,” Costa said.
Currently, in-state undergraduate students at Pitt and Penn State’s main campuses pay about $ 19,092 and $ 18,898, respectively, in annual tuition costs.
In-state Pitt students save $ 15,000 each year and in-state Penn State students save $ 13,300 – though these discounts are not completely provided by the state.
Pitt’s general support funding provides the average in-state student at the Oakland campus with a discount of about $ 8,900 each year. For in-state Penn Staters, Pennsylvania provides about $ 5,400 in savings.
Therefore, Pitt and Penn State provide an additional $ 6,100 and $ 7,900, respectively, to their in-staters every year.
Pitt has argued that its state-native students would “lose needed tuition support” without university funding, but Nelson said he is not preventing the university from continuing to provide the same additional savings.
Assuming Pitt and Penn State continued to provide the same out-of-pocket discounts for in-state students, under the college voucher program:
- An in-state Pitt student whose household earns less than $ 100,000 would save up to $ 14,100.
- An in-state Pitt student whose household earns between $ 100,000- $ 250,000 would save up to $ 10,100.
- An in-state Penn State student whose household earns less than $ 100,000 would save up to $ 15,900.
- An in-state Penn State student whose household earns between $ 100,000- $ 250,000 would save up to $ 11,900.
The proposal “would move Pennsylvania in the wrong direction,” Pitt spokesman Chuck Finder said in a statement.
“Eliminating direct public funding will — in no uncertain terms — jeopardize this discount, which currently saves Pennsylvania students and families tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a four-year college career,” Finder said via email.
Penn State “has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the commonwealth,” university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in a statement. She said school officials would not comment on the college voucher program until a bill is introduced.
‘Coming to a head soon’
Nelson anticipates he will introduce a bill for the program this month. He said the program’s presence in the state is “coming to a head soon.”
As the 2022-23 budget is fleshed out, some House Republicans have indicated they might not support Pitt’s nonpreferred appropriation bill over the university’s fetal tissue research.
Instead, Nelson said lawmakers could vote to give Pitt’s general support funding directly to PHEAA, which would then give it to Pitt students.
No matter what happens, Nelson said he hopes he “serves and helps” Pennsylvanian students.
“I’m not looking to be a bull in a china shop,” Nelson said. “I’m looking to empower students and families.”