The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is home to more than 160 colleges and universities. Each institution of higher learning has opportunities for students to learn the skills they need to be successful in the 21st century. These academic experiences can include studying business, philosophy, science, mathematics, political science, art, communications, and theology, to name a few. Students attend colleges and universities in order to acquire not just the knowledge base they will need in order to be employed upon graduation, but the skills needed to be successful. The growing concern for many students is how they will afford the tuition costs, and will the degree they choose help them to be gainfully employed upon graduation?
An effectively trained workforce is essential to the longevity and strength of Pennsylvania’s economy. It is estimated this year that 63 percent of all the commonwealth’s jobs will require at least some postsecondary education. Without these advanced degrees and training, job seekers will not be qualified to fill the available positions. There are a multitude of programs available that provide the training and experience necessary for students; however, there are limitations that exist beyond the accessibility of the program. Significant inequalities in race, geographic location and ability to pay impact the attainability to earning a post-secondary degree. There needs to be a greater improvement in policy and innovative solutions to address affordability of college, demographic disparities and repayment of student debt.
In 2016, Pennsylvania was ranked 49th in College Affordability Diagnosis by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. This comprehensive study determined the costs of higher education in relation with family income. Costs of the overall education, room and board, books, activity fees and other expenses can have a looming impact on students and their families. Families on average would have to pay almost half of their annual income to cover the costs for full-time attendance. These growing financial burdens have become an unfortunate reality for many students and their loved ones. The problem is cyclical. Students need higher education to obtain the skills they need for their job, but can’t afford to pay the price of their education since they can’t obtain a job without the advanced degree and/or the job they secured does not afford them the funds to repay their loans.
Even with financial aid and if applicable, athletic scholarship opportunities, students and families are often left with the problem of paying for the degree. Through private scholarships, aid provided by the institutions of higher education, as well as state and federal loan options, some students can receive their education at a reduced rate. However, many students still face the reality of repaying their student loan debt and interest years after they graduate. Currently, student debt across the country totals over $1.3 trillion. This enervating amount of debt controls the financial decisions of the student borrowers and can have a lasting impact that can cause them to default or be unable to pay for other basic life necessities. This is a grave concern about the imminent amount of student debt considering students often can’t afford to pay for their education without taking out a loan and putting themselves into debt.
Education is a vital part of our existence in the 21st century. It is an enriching opportunity that provides us with perspective, knowledge and understanding to learn and to grow as individuals, as a commonwealth and as a nation. I believe that we should set students on a path toward success instead of on the road to debilitating debt. There needs to be additional compromise to close the affordability gap between institutions of higher education and families to ensure that students can access the education they need in order to be employable candidates. Some states have already implemented student loan forgiveness programs to ease some of the financial burdens associated with obtaining an advanced degree, but states also need to step up and invest more generously in post-secondary education.
In April 2019, I introduced House Bill 1306, legislation that would address help address the student debt crisis. This bill would amend the Tax Reform Code to allow for individuals to complete a one-time withdrawal from their retirement plan to help cover the costs of student loan debt of a family member. I recognize that financing higher education is overwhelming for students and their families. I continue to work with my colleagues to reform existing policy to promote prosperity for students. It is my intent that students can utilize the degrees they earned at institutes of higher education and receive wages that finance their goals and aspirations. As a father, teacher, legislator and lifetime learner myself, I have experienced this issue firsthand. It is my hope that we can tactfully address this problem and provide fiscally responsible options for students and confront the burden of student debt. ••
Rep. Thomas Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District. Kailee Fisher contributed to this article.