Higher education in Pennsylvania carries a higher price tag than in most other states, a problem which has one advocate group pushing for change.
In September 2008, the Pennsylvania Board of Education requested that the Deputy Secretary for Postsecondary and Higher Education conduct research to document whether, and to what extent, the cost of postsecondary education in the Commonwealth constitutes a significant barrier to the college access, retention and graduation, according to a report published by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the nation for most expensive college costs, a stigma that causes gaps between financial aid and the cost of postsecondary school.
The Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education presented a report which showed that a "significant gap exists between available need-based grant aid and the total cost" of attending university in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE) or a community college.
The report indicated that even after adding expected family contribution (EFC), which is based on a federally calculated estimate of the amount a family can be expected to pay towards education, "most students do not have enough money to attend a PSSHE university or community college."
This translates to a $3,000 gap per year for community college students from families making $50,000 a year. The gap widens for students in state universities to $7,200 for students from the same financial background.
"...Even at the state's most affordable public institutions, students must utilize sizable loans in order to finance their education," the report said.
Students from the lowest income brackets suffer the most as the EFC is lower, creating a bigger gap.
The report said, families making $20,000 or less with a dependent student attending a PSSHE must devote 37 percent of their yearly income to paying for college after loans.
However, the report noted, "The percent of family income that must be devoted to paying for college declines significantly as one moves up the income ladder, meaning that federal and state student aid policies have not equalized access to higher education."
The issuance of private loans, used to fill the gaps, has been on the rise for the past decade, according to the College Board. In 1997, private loans accounted for 6 percent of student loans. By 2007, the amount of private loans ballooned to 24 percent.
Consequently, the class of 2007 in Pennsylvania graduated with, on average, $23,613 in loan debt, higher than the national average of $20,098.
In the conclusion of the report, survey and other research showed that the cost of education is a significant factor causing prospective students not to enroll in higher education.
According to information provided by Kathy Geller Myers, communications director for Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, in Warren County, approximately 39 percent of residents age 25 and older have some postsecondary education or attainment. With nearly one-third of county residents ranking as low income, earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level, the PPC theorizes that "cost of college may be one reason for this troubling gap in educational attainment in your county."
The PPC has proposed recommendations to deal with the high cost of higher education.
The first recommendation is last-dollar scholarships to low-income students. The scholarships would cover all the remaining costs of attending a community college or one of PSSHE universities after all other forms of college financial aid have been exhausted. Students from families with income less than 200 percent of the poverty level would qualify.
The another suggestion is encouraging the Commonwealth to consider indexing the share of tuition that a student of family would based on their income.
Terrie Ericson, director of the Warren Center of Jamestown Community College, suggests looking locally for both education and financial assistance to alleviate the problem.
Although the report indicates gaps, Ericson said attending a local community college, like JCC Warren Center, is less expensive.
"You can save so much money by starting here," she said.
In addition to cost savings by staying local, Ericson recommendations seeking local scholarships to help defray the cost of higher educations.
She said many local entities such as fraternities, Mason lodges and community foundations have scholarships available.
Colleges often have scholarships available as well. For example, Warren County students who graduate in the top 20 percent in their class are eligible for the USA Scholarship which would pay for the out-of-state portion of their tuition if they were to attend JCC Warren Center.