Head of the class

Pennsylvania falls last or near the bottom among states in a number of rankings including share of public education funding, school funding equity and jobs creation.

Clearly these rankings do not speak well for the future of young people.

Add to that one ranking in which Pennsylvania comes in first: Pennsylvania had the highest average student debt in the nation in 2017.

According to a study by LendEDU, as reported by Watchdog.org, Pennsylvania students carried an average of $36,193 in debt last year, more than $800 higher than the second-highest state, Rhode Island. According to LendEDU, the Pennsylvania figure was a 2.87 percent increase from 2016. The national average is $28,288, up ab out 1.12 percent from 2016.

“Student loan debt in the U.S. continues to be an issue of the utmost importance,” LendEDU noted in its report. “The total outstanding student loan debt now stands at to $1.52 trillion, making it the second largest form of consumer debt behind only mortgages.”

Nationally, about 58 percent of 2017 graduates carried debt, but in Pennsylvania that number jumped to 67 percent.

Are Pennsylvania college students worse at managing money or saving for college than their counterparts in other states?

That’s doubtful.

The answer more likely is in Pennsylvania’s high tuition costs.

The average annual in-state college tuition in Pennsylvania was $21,071 for the 2016-17 academic year. This is $7,129 higher than the U.S. average, according to CollegeCalc, a website that compares tuition prices across the country.

This places Pennsylvania as the 5th most expensive state for higher education for state residents and near the bottom (48th) among states for an affordable education. (More of those damning rankings.)

In this atmosphere, one might think there would be an effort to control or lower the costs of in-state tuition.

Instead, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted in July to increase tuition for in-state students by 3 percent.

The boards of Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh voted not to increase tuition for the 2018-19 school year. Those institutions fall into the category of state-related schools that receive some funding from the state but are not part of the PASSHE system.

Penn State -- which has the highest annual in-state costs of any public university in the nation at $36,3442 -- last year created a task force to explore ways to keep costs down without sacrificing quality. The task force is working with a consultant to analyze costs and revenue and look for savings.

These high costs have prompted another move in the Legislature where a bill has been proposed to provide free tuition to students attending state schools.

The program, called Pennsylvania Promise, would be administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency to cover two years of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates attending one of the 14 community colleges and four years of tuition and fees at a state-owned or state-related university for students with a family income of $110,000 or less per year.

Students whose family income is $48,000 or less would also be eligible for assistance with costs associated with room and board.

The bill has 23 co-sponsors — 22 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Thomas Murt, R-Hatboro — and is currently awaiting consideration in the House Education Committee.

The program, despite a projected $1 billion pricetag, is not out of line with programs offered in other states, even in those where tuition is more affordable.

We urge Pennsylvania lawmakers and leaders in higher education to take drastic steps to make college affordable for state residents.

We urge leaders to seek creative solutions, such as incentives to schools that hold the line on tuition, increased aid to families of low- and middle-income, and an all-out commitment from both educators and lawmakers to drive down in-state costs.

It’s time to level the playing field with other states and deliver on the promise of a future to the next generation.

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