Bye. Senate Republicans support an alternative to Shapiro’s college funding proposal

The Senate Education Committee met Monday to discuss proposals put forth by Senate Republicans to address problems in the state’s higher education system, such as dwindling affordability and enrollment.

The package of bills is largely a response to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposal and addresses similar underlying issues in different ways. As it currently stands, Pennsylvania ranks last among U.S. states in higher education affordability and higher education funding per student.

“The assumptions of these laws are simple. We want to compete to help our young people stay here in Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster). “This package sends a strong message to young people: If you are willing to work hard and get an education to work in high-demand industries, right here in Pennsylvania, we are ready to invest to keep you here.”

The Republican bill package would enhance funding for student grants and scholarships by both expanding existing scholarship programs and creating novel ones. Funds would also be targeted at in-state and out-of-state students pursuing high-demand careers in Pennsylvania, such as teaching, health care, agriculture and law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Shapiro’s proposal includes a 15% enhance in funding for state universities and colleges and a cap on tuition at $1,000 per semester for in-state students from families earning about $70,000 or less. It would also combine the administration of community colleges and schools within Pennsylvania’s higher education system, something Republicans generally oppose.

Shapiro lays out a sweeping plan for higher education reform in Pennsylvania

Regarding the difference between the two approaches, Jason Thompson, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Martin, said: “Our package is a little more targeted at high-demand industries. For example, the new Scholarships, Fellowships and Merit Scholarship Program is targeted at students who are pursuing careers urgently needed in Pennsylvania.”

Senate Minority Education Committee Chair Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) appeared to express some skepticism about scholarships tied to specific fields of study.

“I worry about normativity [tying grants to] certain types of majors,” Williams said. “Students change majors and can still continue their education in that in-demand field, but in a non-traditional way.”

Commenting on this topic, Nathan Hench, senior vice president of public affairs at the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), noted that different states have different work and study requirements for similar programs.

Hench also advised lawmakers to consider student experiences when legislating who will receive funding for high-demand fields.

“It is important to consider flexibility when designing such programs,” Hench added. This flexibility would include ensuring that the requirements for receiving a grant are not too stringent. An example given would be allowing graduates in specific fields to work in wide areas of the state rather than in very specific regions.

Hench also advised that program administrators should have the discretion to award scholarships to students who may make minor errors in their paperwork or documentation of time spent working in their fields.

Ultimately, the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate will have to find common ground to pass any bill on issues related to the state’s higher education system.

However, there are key similarities. In addition to the primary goal of both plans, both Republican senators and the governor want to create a performance-based funding system for state colleges and universities.

Both the governor’s office and Senate Republican leaders expressed optimism, saying both sides appear motivated to address the same issues.

“We are pleased that Senate Republican leaders agree that we must take action to make our higher education system more competitive, create more opportunities for students and families, and meet Pennsylvania’s workforce needs,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for Shapiro’s office.

The Grow PA bill package is expected to come up for a vote on Tuesday in the Senate Education Committee.

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