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Fetterman, Corman Tackle Cost of Education in Discussion at Penn State

by on April 12, 2019 12:07 PM

Pennsylvania's Democratic Lt. Governor John Fetterman and Republican State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman addressed the cost of education in a forum discussion at Penn State's Freeman Auditorium on Thursday evening. The event, organized by the Lion Caucus, explored questions about the costs of college and higher education’s role in society.

Fetterman kicked off proceedings by stating that Pennsylvania has the third-highest public tuition costs in the country, and its student debt load is the second-highest in the United States. He believes it’s no “accident” that such a correlation exists.

“I think that we have an issue in front of us that needs to be addressed,” Fetterman said. “I think it’s going to require an ongoing, bipartisan dialogue and solution.”

Corman, of Benner Township, said there are a number of reasons the cost of college has increased and agreed the issue itself is nonpartisan in nature. Corman said that, as a father of three, he’s saving for college himself and understands the pressing nature of the issue. The state senator laid out how the costs of maintaining staff and buildings simply requires more funding year in and year out, but that university leadership also must play a role to keep tuition costs down.

“We can try to make things through loans and grants and tax benefits to help pay for the college,” Corman said. “But if we’re not having the institutions buy in with the government to make sure the institution costs stay low, all we’re doing is funding higher and higher costs.”

Fetterman also pointed out the importance of higher education in a changing economy. He referenced estimations that 65 percent of new jobs in Pennsylvania will require some sort of secondary credential by 2025. Currently, just 47 percent of Pennsylvania residents have such credentials, and that number falls below 30 percent for people of color within the Commonwealth. Fetterman finds these statistics, especially as they relate to historically marginalized communities, “distressing,” arguing that investment and support for affordable education are crucial.

The barriers for increasing funding to state institutions isn’t so clear. Corman couldn’t explain why Pennsylvania politicians haven’t been strong supporters of higher education, despite widespread interest in primary education. Perhaps because of Old Main and Beaver Stadium, policymakers view Penn State's University Park campus as not particularly wanting for funds.

“I represent main campus, but I tease my colleges and say that if they don’t want to fund Penn State, there will still be 45,000 students in my district,” Corman said. “Where Penn State would contract would be all of the branch campuses around the state.”

As a former college dropout who returned to school to finish his degree, Corman is an advocate for both Penn State and public higher education.

So, what’s feasible when it comes to lowering costs? Corman believes providing more financial literacy among the younger population is important to make sure individuals don’t burden themselves with too much debt.

Fetterman sees a fundamental shift as a necessary precursor to change.

“How big of a priority are we willing to make it in this state and as the country?” Fetterman asked. “That’s going to be driven by your generation, the millennials, in terms of ‘This is what this has done to me,’ and ‘This is what I’m going to be stuck with for the rest of my life.'”

On the issue of debt-free or tuition-free public institutions, Corman said those are great goals, but the question is how to get there and that the answer is not so simple. Fetterman agreed the goal of no debt is important, but that someone has to pay for it. Again, he pointed to the fact that funding public education would need to become an absolute priority for society.

The two closed out the night by taking sides on the Sheetz vs. Wawa debate (they both chose Sheetz), before offering up some advice to those interested in life as public servants.

Derek Bannister is a writer for Onward State.
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