On Friday, Jan. 26, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro released his proposed plan to cap tuition and fees at $1,000 per semester for students whose families earn $70,000 or less. Students at 10 public universities, including West Chester University, and all 15 community colleges in Pennsylvania will benefit from this program. The program also includes a $1,000 increase toward Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) grants per student.
This proposal is an attempt to reverse declining student enrollment in Pennsylvania’s higher education system, a trend which began in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. Since the 2010–2011 school year, eight of the 10 state colleges in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education saw their enrollment decline by an average of 50 percent. Only two schools, Slippery Rock (+0.3%) and West Chester (+22.3%) saw their enrollment increase during those 10 years. However, between 2022 and 2023, West Chester University began to experience a slight decrease in enrollment, down to 17,108 active students in 2023 from 17,309 in 2022. To prevent further declines, swift action is being taken by Shapiro and his education advisors.
Although issues regarding higher education exist throughout the entire United States, they are especially acute in Pennsylvania. According to U.S. News & World Report, “By just about every measure there is, Pennsylvania is ranked at the bottom among states in the level of higher education aid, size of student debt and affordability of its colleges.” The current, problematic state of higher education in Pennsylvania has not eluded Shapiro, who left no room for ambiguity when he bluntly remarked, “what we’re doing isn’t working.”
Reasons for Declining Enrollment
An article in Business Insider suggests this overall decline in college enrollment signals an erosion of trust in a college education as a means to attaining a better quality of life. Most Americans now believe college is not worth the cost, according to a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll. Ted Mitchell, the President of the American Council on Education, which includes over 1,700 institutions of higher education, discusses soaring student debt (now $1.77 trillion nationally) and insufficient graduation rates (currently around 60% at 4-year colleges) as the main drivers behind the declining enrollment rates across the United States in an interview with Todd Zipper, EVP and GM of Wiley University Services.
Some critics are already questioning the practicability and benefits of this program. The main concern is increasing taxes on Pennsylvanians to foot the bill, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said in an article with TribLIVE. The other option would be to restructure Pennsylvania’s budget in order to fund this tuition cap, which would require a decrease in public spending in areas such as welfare, infrastructure, education, etc. West Chester University, one of the most affordable colleges in Pennsylvania (it was ranked as the college with the best value in Pennsylvania in 2023-2024), has its in-state tuition capped at $7,716 per year. Adding fees to this figure brings the total to $10,471 per year. Shapiro’s plan would see that amount drop down to $2,000 per year, a decrease of 81 percent. This reduction in tuition prices would require a significant restructuring of Pennsylvania’s budget.
Presidents at Westmoreland County Community College and the Community College of Allegheny County praised the initiative by Governor Shapiro in an article by TribLIVE. A press release sent out by the Governor’s Press Office, Temple University President Richard M. Englert expressed his gratitude and enthusiasm towards the proposal, highlighting the governor’s efforts “to support our students, ensure greater access, affordability and excellence in higher education.” Neeli Bendapudi, president of Penn State University, acknowledged the positive impact this opportunity will have on colleges and students in an article on Whyy.org. Many high school graduates, including Christopher Rudnik of Hempfield Area High School, are satisfied with the proposal according to TribLIVE.
This program would have other long-term benefits beyond increasing college admissions. According to research conducted by Georgetown University, lifetime earnings for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree are around $2.268 million, compared to $1.3 million for individuals with only a high school diploma. The higher income will result in more tax revenue for the state and more consumer spending which benefits all Pennsylvanians, regardless of their educational levels. Furthermore, research by the College Board has shown that holding a college degree decreases rates of unemployment, poverty, smoking and incarceration while promoting health, children’s cognitive skills, volunteerism, voting, productivity, economic mobility and social cohesion.
An Interview with Dr. Sarah Lawton from the Department of Political Science at West Chester University:
Q: Do you think this will increase enrollment rates in state colleges?
A: I think this could help to increase enrollment rates, especially among students from traditionally marginalized groups. Since the SFFA v. Harvard decision, universities across the country will have a harder time creating a diverse campus. A tuition cap is one way of overcoming these new limitations.
Q: What sort of negative effects do you think this program might have among PA student demographics?
A: My primary concern is that tuition affordability is but one of many barriers to attending college. Making college accessible requires a constellation of efforts designed to address the many factors that make college prohibitive.
Q: Would this program have a more beneficial outcome were it to include all universities within PA, both state-owned and private?
A: 100 percent, college needs to be more accessible and affordable across the board.
Q: How do you think this decision will impact the student debt crisis in America?
A: Hopefully, it is a good first step in eliminating student debt. It is important to recognize that free college was the norm at state schools until the 1960s. Tuition at public universities [arose] at the same time as African Americans and other students of color began to attend college in larger numbers. Then governor of California Ronald Reagan proposed charging tuition in order to make it more difficult for students of color to attend.
Sameh Sharoud is a third-year Psychology major with a minor in Biology. SS1015422@wcupa.edu
Gaven Mitchell is a third-year History major with a minor in Journalism. GM1001024@wcupa.edu