Under the representative’s measure, students from households with up to $100,000 in annual earnings would receive yearly grants of as much as $8,000 per year for higher education. Those from households earning between $100,000 and $250,000 would get vouchers of $4,000. These payments would be managed via an expansion of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), an agency Nelson said has demonstrated an ability to efficiently oversee Pennsylvania students’ financial assistance.
The nearly $600 million for the voucher program would come from funding that currently gets appropriated each year to Pennsylvania State University, Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh, three of Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities. (The fourth, Lincoln University, is a historically black university in Chester County that would not lose funding under Nelson’s plan because it depends on state funding to continue its very operation.)
Granting budget line items to these institutions has been a somewhat unsettling process for a fiscal hawk like Nelson insofar as legislators are not provided with reports to justify the amounts these institutions obtain, he told The Pennsylvania Daily Star.
“Not only [are these line items] exclusive to three of our wealthiest schools in the state, but there’s no transparency for how the money is spent,” he said.
Via his voucher alternative, the representative estimates aid would flow to roughly 41,000 more Pennsylvania students. The program would be phased in over five years so as to leave all present Penn State, Temple and Pitt attendees unaffected.
Nelson justifies his idea for vouchers substantially on the grounds that the modern economy increasingly comprises technical vocations to which a traditional college education may not lend itself. While his program would aid students matriculating at any of Pennsylvania’s accredited institutions of higher education, he notes that the aid would go a particularly long way toward covering the cost of community or technical college for many students. According to Community College Review, the average community-college tuition in the Keystone State is $10,168 per year for attendees native to Pennsylvania.
Nelson said he got the idea for his bill about two years ago when he crossed paths with a technical school student he used to coach in football. The young man was working nights in Home Depot’s electrical department to pay his tuition.
“He was talking about how he was working, going to school, trying to make everything work and being very positive about it and I thought, you know, it just isn’t right that he’s actually paying taxes as he’s going to school and taxpayer money doesn’t reach him in such a large amount,” the representative said.
Nelson’s vision for higher-education funding follows a school-choice model that free-marketers and other reformers have backed when it comes to primary and secondary schools: funding students directly, thereby giving them and their families educational choice and putting more schools on a more competitive playing field.
He added that he has every desire to see state-related universities continue to thrive – he has two children now attending Penn State – and sees every indication that the three impacted schools will be able to continue their operations unhampered once vouchers are in effect. He noted that the universities each have massive endowments, Pitt’s being about $5 billion.
“They brag and boast about their extremely high application rate and how they’re growing as a university,” he said. “There’s a very real equity issue in question here and that is, why should those three wealthy schools continue to receive taxpayer funding and learners at other schools don’t for very similar programs?”
Over 20 of Nelson’s colleagues in the state House of Representatives have signed onto his bill as co-sponsors. He anticipates the bill will soon be referred to the House Education Committee.
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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Background Photo “Pennsylvania Capitol” by Kumar Appaiah. CC BY-SA 2.0.