Senator Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Representative James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia), and Representative Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) held a press conference Thursday, June 7, to introduce the Pennsylvania Promise Initiative to make college affordable in Pennsylvania. The initiative has been filed in the House and Senate as HB 2444 and SB 1111, respectively.
Sen. Hughes opened the press conference with, “Why not free college? What is wrong with that idea,” a phrase he would repeat several times throughout the remainder of the conference. Sen. Hughes said that students in Pennsylvania, on average, are graduating with $33,000 in student debt, roughly $4,000 higher than the national student debt. Sen. Hughes proclaimed that many students are starting college, accumulating debt, and find they cannot finish school because they cannot afford it.
Annie Reynolds, a senior at Penn State Harrisburg completing her degree in political science, said that she wants to fight and change the political process, which included making college more affordable. Reynolds expressed that most people understand that college is not affordable, but that people do not realize the constant struggle that many students face to get by. “Students are barely surviving the process to just get the degree,” said Reynolds, who went on to further describe some of the financial struggles she has faced, including having to share meals with friends and choosing between attending class or going to work some days.
“As leaders in education, we recognize that the future of our economy and workforce are dependent upon highly trained, qualified employees,” said Rep. Roebuck. “[The Pennsylvania Promise] would cover 2 years of tuition and fees for high school graduates who are in the Commonwealth Community College, it would cover 4 years of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates who are accepted into the 14 universities at the state system and provide 4 years of tuition and fees to those who are admitted to the other tier of colleges of Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln.”
Rep. Roebuck further explained that the Pennsylvania Promise would also support expanding grant assistance to adults that are looking for in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials in addition to college credits. Rep. Roebuck concluded that students should be focusing on getting good jobs after completing their education and not drowning in college debt.
Rep. Harris spoke about growing up in his mother’s home in South Philadelphia. According to Rep. Harris, as a child, it was expected that he would attend college, even though he did not know how he was going to afford it at the time. Rep. Harris spoke of his grandmother, Claudette, who worked as a teaching assistant in a daycare while attending college and raising her children in the projects of Philadelphia. Claudette kept a promise that she made to her children assuring them that they would have a better future than she had, Rep. Harris said. Thanks to her promise, Rep. Harris stated that his mother was able to get her college degree, and now he stands at the podium with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and is working towards his doctorate. Rep. Harris made reference to Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech in Washington DC, and how Dr. King mentioned that the promises made in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to citizens of color had been defaulted on by America. Rep. Harris compared that promise to one mentioned in Pennsylvania’s Constitution, which states that the General Assembly shall provide for, maintain and support a thorough and efficient system of public education. As a cosponsor of Rep. Roebuck’s bill, Rep. Harris reiterated his belief that this promise in Pennsylvania’s Constitution must be fulfilled.
Ken Mash, President of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), discussed how “we have an affordability crisis in Pennsylvania when it comes to a college education.” Mash said that students today are working as many as four jobs just to attend college at all. Pennsylvania is 47th in per capita funding for public higher education, noted Mash, who expressed his support for the Pennsylvania Promise Initiative and encouraged people to visit pennsylvaniapromise.org to learn more about tackling the issue of college affordability.
Sen. Hughes thanked all of the speakers for their comments and affirmed his belief that universities in Pennsylvania produce a very high-quality education for our students. “If you are making $110,000 or less, you get your tuition and fees covered. If you are making $48,000 or less, you get tuition, fees, and your housing covered,” said Hughes. 70 percent of Pennsylvania college students graduate with debt, stated Hughes, before asking once more “Why not free college?”
A question was asked if Sen. Hughes had any idea how the Pennsylvania Promise Initiative would be funded. Sen. Hughes responded that they do not want to get into discussing the funding side at the moment. Personally, Sen. Hughes said he supports further taxation of Marcellus Shale to pay for the initiative but did not want to speak on behalf of the other individuals on stage.
A question was asked if Sen. Hughes knew what the price tag would be. Sen. Hughes estimated that the initial run would cost about $800 million but the investment in Pennsylvania’s young people would pay off dramatically.
Pennsylvania Legislative Service
June 7, 2018