Report: Pa. fails college affordability

December 2, 2008 9:11:33 PM PST
Pennsylvania has received an "F" for the third time in a row from a national organization evaluating the state's efforts to ease the high cost of going to college.

The failing grade was given out to Pennsylvania and 48 other states in a new higher education report card released Wednesday by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Pennsylvania was among 43 states classified as failures in that category by the biennial study in 2006 and among 36 receiving that distinction in 2004.

The report card, however, praised Pennsylvania's relatively high level of financial aid to needy students compared to other states, with 86 cents spent for every federal Pell Grant dollar students receive. Still, poor and working-class families must spend 61 percent of their income for a public four-year college, and 44 percent on a community college after financial aid is applied, the report said.

"Even in states with very generous need-based financial aid programs, it's still not affordable" because of tuition increases that have exceeded inflation, said Will Doyle, a Vanderbilt University higher education assistant professor who was a consultant on the report.

John Cavanaugh, chancellor of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, questioned the validity of the report's calculations. He noted that it averages the cost of attending the State System of Higher Education schools with the higher cost of four "state-related" universities that receive state funding, but are not owned by the state.

Cavanaugh said the cost of attending a state system school would amount to around 40 percent of the income of a poor or working-class family.

"I would agree that 40 percent is too high, but what that reflects is a decline of state support," Cavanaugh said. "It's a phenomenon that's not isolated to Pennsylvania."

The amount of state tax dollars given to Penn State University has grown just 5.4 percent over the last eight years, spokeswoman Lisa Powers said. This year, Gov. Ed Rendell has asked all public universities to brace for possible aid reductions in response to the state's lower-than-expected revenues.

"Colleges are an appealing target for budget cutters and the state is in the habit of using higher education as a quick budget fix when the economy gets tough," Powers said.

Rendell's administration has focused on providing a larger infusion of state funding to community colleges, a destination for many low-income residents, spokesman Chuck Ardo said. The state's current economic woes are an obstacle to finding more money for public colleges, he added.

"There is a finite pool of money available for higher education, and we try to divide it in a way that is most appropriate," Ardo said. "We all wish that the pool were deeper and wider."

Pennsylvania undergraduates also borrowed an average of $4,448 to pay for college in 2007, compared with $2,991 in 1995, the report card said.

Its general findings on affordability echo the state Education Department's own report last month that concluded that college is becoming increasingly out of reach for Pennsylvania's poorest families.

"The cost of college is a growing concern, especially for low- and middle-income families - it eats up a bigger chunk of their income," agency spokesman Michael Race said.

Annual tuition at Penn State's flagship University Park campus is more than $13,000 for resident freshmen and sophomores and ranges between $14,000 and $16,800 for resident juniors and seniors, depending on their major.

In-state undergraduate tuition at the 14 State System of Higher Education universities is $5,358 annually, but the total cost varies because each school sets its own room and board rates.

The report card also awarded Pennsylvania an "A for its performance in awarding certificates and degrees, noting that 65 percent of college students complete a bachelor's degree within six years. But it also highlighted a racial disparity: Only 47 percent of black students graduate in six years, compared with 66 percent of whites.

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On the Net:

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

Pa. Department of Education

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Martha Raffaele covers education for The Associated Press in Harrisburg.

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