Ease the college squeeze

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Study after study has found that earning a college degree pays dividends for young people the rest of their lives. The federal government's most recent jobs report found that unemployment among college graduates is 3.9 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for the workforce as a whole.

But how to pay for that valuable college degree continues to generate debate among educators and policy makers, and it likely always will. Putting a price tag on someone's future is no easy task.

As families look at the costs of higher education, it is critically important that they understand the full picture of financing a degree for their child or children. There's no doubt that the financial impact on a family is a factor -- but one that should be considered in a broader context driven by hard data and not, necessarily, scary headlines regarding "college debt."

And there is good news out of Harrisburg, where lawmakers are considering legislation designed to provide more grants to middle-income families who are now falling through the cracks. Lawmakers in both the state House and Senate are backing legislation designed to make it easier for middle-income families to afford access to the Pennsylvania college or university of their choice.

Called the Middle Income Student Debt Reduction Act, this proposal would provide $36 million in new state funds targeted toward students whose family income ranges from $80,000 to $110,000. These state grants would be funded through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, the state agency charged with providing college grants for low- and moderate-income students.

Robert Morris University, along with dozens of colleges and universities across the commonwealth, supports this proposal. It is critically important to note that we are not proposing to reduce the amount of aid currently provided to the neediest of families. Such an effort would be both unfair and counter-productive to our mission.

Why are we focused on middle-income families? The data show that there is a widening gap in our current system and families in this income range are falling through it.

A recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded study found that students with family incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 assumed the largest levels of student debt; and those with family incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 were right behind them.

It makes sense that families with incomes above $150,000 assumed the least debt. Obviously, these families have more money and need to borrow less. But what is surprising is that lower income families -- those with incomes below $60,000 -- had assumed less debt than middle-income families.

Now that is not bad news. It demonstrates that lower income families can obtain access to higher education without necessarily incurring unmanageable levels of debt. We have an obligation to do as much as possible to make college affordable for this group.

Robert Morris University, for instance, is proud that 42 percent of our student body receives federal Pell grants for low-income families. We also provide $23 million in direct student aid to help keep college affordable. Roughly 78 percent of students enrolled in private colleges in our commonwealth receive some form of grant aid, as well. The cost of a private college education in Pennsylvania can be close to that of state-subsidized universities, and sometimes even lower, depending on the final aid package.

But as middle-income families strain under multiple financial demands, shouldn't the state provide some grant aid to help shoulder their children's college costs and not overload them with debt? At Robert Morris University alone, 555 students would be eligible for state aid under the proposed Middle Income Student Debt Reduction Act.

Pennsylvanians have a wide range of choices when picking a college, and they have a wide range of potential funding sources to help make that invaluable degree easier to obtain. Middle-income families could use one more.


Gregory G. Dell'Omo is president of Robert Morris University and vice chairman of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania (dellomo@rmu.edu).


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