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OP-ED: To ease the burden of loan debt, invest in Pa. students

DON FRANCIS
YorkDispatch

You would have had to have spent your last decade in a cave to not know that student loan debt has become a major economic and political concern for most Americans.

Student loan debt is a real problem, a problem that many institutions of higher education recognize and are working to address. In fact, an analysis of data by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania (AICUP) found that the average net cost of tuition and fees for students receiving financial aid has actually decreased since the Great Recession.

According to the analysis of federal data, full-time, first-year students receiving financial aid at an independent college or university in Pennsylvania paid, on average, $13,360 in inflation-adjusted dollars in tuition and fees in 2007. In 2012, that number dropped by more than $300 to $13,036.

Additionally, researchers found that in 2012, students who received aid paid on average less than half of published tuition and fees. The study noted that federal, state and institutional grant aid was used to make college more affordable to students and help them attain a degree at a reasonable price. In 2013-14, the private college and universities provided 82 percent of all grant aid, doing their part to reduce student debt.

But where there are gaps between funding and need, students and their families need additional help making ends meet. One way to do that here in the commonwealth is to address the needs in the state budget.

For instance, just a 5 percent increase in PHEAA state grant funding would mean the difference of $17.2 million additional funds for students over the proposed level funding for the program this year. Additionally, if lawmakers supported Gov. Tom Wolf's $10 million increase for the Ready to Succeed Scholarship (RTSS) program, thousands more middle income students who meet eligibility requirements would be able to receive scholarships to apply toward their tuition.

Unlike loans, these grants and scholarships do not need to be repaid. In fact, they directly reduce debt students might otherwise obtain if these grant dollars were not available. This is why state student aid programs are critical in reducing student debt.

Pennsylvania's college and universities, both public and private, contribute mightily to the future of our commonwealth through the students they graduate. The commonwealth's colleges and universities are charged with preparing future employees to enter the workforce and contribute to the economy.

While Pennsylvania's private colleges and universities provide more than $2 billion in grant aid to their students, they can't do it alone; they need government assistance to fill in the gaps and help provide students — young, old, low-, middle- and upper-income alike — with the opportunity to better themselves and our state as a whole without undertaking unnecessary financial stress in the process.

— Dr. Don Francis is the president of the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities of Pennsylvania, the only statewide organization that serves exclusively the interests of private higher education within the commonwealth. With a membership of 89 private colleges and universities within Pennsylvania, the association provides a variety of services and programs tailored specifically to the needs and situation of independent higher education. A list of AICUP's member colleges and universities is included on its website at www.aicup.org.