Make college more affordable

Corbett's Ready to Succeed program will help middle-class students

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Despite fears over student loan debt and sluggish job growth, the value of a college degree is rising, not falling.

U.S. unemployment among those with at least a bachelor’s degree is nearly three percentage points lower than for workers with only a high school diploma. College-educated workers will earn 84 percent more over their lifetimes than high school graduates, a gap that has grown since the 1990s, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the median annual salary for a college graduate is $32,000 higher than for those without a college degree.

Money spent on higher education is therefore a worthy investment not only in an individual’s future but also in our nation’s overall economy. That’s why I and many of my fellow college and university presidents are supporting the Ready to Succeed Scholarship program, which is part of Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2014-2015 budget. This program would put a college degree in closer reach for the children of middle-class families whose income disqualifies them from existing aid programs.

Currently, most students whose families earn between $80,000 and $110,000 do not quality for grants through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency or federal Pell grants, both of which provide aid to low-income students. In 2011-2012, the last year for which complete data is available, 79,000 middle-income students in Pennsylvania applied for PHEAA grants but only 15,000 received them.

At my institution, Robert Morris University, approximately 500 students in this income range receive little or no state aid, and many work at least 20 hours a week in addition to attending class full-time. Statewide and across the nation, it is middle-income students who carry the lion’s share of student-loan debt.

Under Gov. Corbett’s proposal, students with family incomes of up to $110,000 annually would be eligible for the Ready to Succeed Scholarship program. Full-time students could receive as much as $2,000 each year ($1,000 for part-time students) so long as they earn a 3.25 college GPA. The governor’s budget sets aside $25 million for the Ready to Succeed Scholarships — enough for 12,500 students statewide — and would not cut funding to regular PHEAA grants.

The Ready to Succeed Scholarship grants would go directly to students to attend any institution of their choice: public or private, community colleges or for-profit institutions. What’s more, students who do receive a PHEAA grant but whose grant is less than $2,000 would be eligible for a Ready to Succeed Scholarship to bring his or her total aid up to $2,000.

The Ready to Succeed Scholarship program would expand access to higher education for middle-class high school graduates and enable them to complete their college studies while taking on less debt. In an age of rising income inequality and rapid technological transformation, higher education remains a critical pathway to professional success and financial security. It is an opportunity we should deny to no one.

Gregory G. Dell’Omo is president of Robert Morris University.

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