When the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted in July to increase tuition for in-state students by 3 percent, House Speaker Mike Turzai criticized the decision, especially in light of the fact that it came about two weeks after the Legislature passed a state budget that increased the system’s funding by 3.3 percent.
“We had hoped that, given four straight increases in appropriations to the state system, that the board would see fit this year to not increase Pennsylvania students’ tuition,” he said in a statement at the time. “When legislators voted for the fourth straight increase in state funding, many members’ vote was predicated upon an expectation that the PASSHE universities would hold the line on tuition.”
Now there’s fresh evidence to support Turzai’s concern about the amount of tuition that Pennsylvania students are expected to pay. A new report from LendEDU, a college-focused financial services company, has determined that the average student debt in Pennsylvania in 2017 was the highest in the nation.
According to the study, Pennsylvania students carried an average of $36,193 in debt last year, more than $800 higher than the second-highest state, Rhode Island. At the other end of the rankings was Utah, where the average debt was only $18,425, a little more than half of what Pennsylvania students averaged.
According to LendEDU, the Pennsylvania figure was a 2.87 percent increase from 2016. The national average is $28,288, up about 1.12 percent from 2016.
“Student loan debt in the U.S. continues to be an issue of the utmost importance,” LendEDU noted in its report. “The total outstanding student loan debt now stands at to $1.52 trillion, making it the second largest form of consumer debt behind only mortgages.”
Nationally, about 58 percent of 2017 graduates carried debt, but in Pennsylvania that number jumped to 67 percent.
When the PASSHE board decided this summer to raise tuition, Turzai, who had recently joined the board, was one of the few who voted against the hike. The increase also drew the ire of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, who was one of the key architects of the budget deal that increased funding for higher education.
“With inclusion in the budget of an additional $15 million for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, it is absolutely insulting to the students at these universities for the Board of Governors to raise tuition,” he said in a statement. “The General Assembly gave PASSHE additional state support to prevent a tuition increase. Instead of prioritizing the students, the governor and his board appointees chose to once again put the union faculty first.”
Turzai did laud the boards of Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh for deciding not to increase tuition for the 2018-19 school year. Those institutions fall into the category of state-related schools that receive some funding from the state but are not part of the PASSHE system. The state-related schools got a 3 percent bump in funding from the state for the upcoming year.
“The University of Pittsburgh took a stand toward ensuring college remains affordable for Pennsylvania students by freezing its tuition and room and board rates for Pennsylvania students,” Turzai said. “Thank you to Chancellor Pat Gallagher and the Board of Trustees who sent a strong statement to students, families and the public by voting in favor of the tuition freeze.”
Pennsylvania’s neighboring states were also among some of the highest in the LendEDU report for student debt. Delaware was 49th, New York 45th, New Jersey 40th, Ohio 35th, Maryland 29th and West Virginia 24th.
Pennsylvania state Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, has in recent months been pushing for a piece of legislation he calls the “Pennsylvania Promise Act.” House Bill 2444 would provide free tuition to students attending the PASSHE, state-owned or state-related schools.
“The Pennsylvania Promise will be administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) and will cover two years of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates attending one of the 14 community colleges and four years of tuition and fees at a state-owned or state-related university for students with a family income of $110,000 or less per year,” Roebuck wrote in a memo to his House colleagues. “Students whose family income is $48,000 or less will also be eligible for assistance with costs associated with room and board.”
The bill has 23 cosponsors – 22 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Thomas Murt, R-Hatboro. it is currently awaiting consideration in the House Education Committee.