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Onorato: More Generous Grants Would Improve College Accessibility

on April 23, 2010 6:10 PM

To help make college more affordable, Dan Onorato would work to double the value of PHEAA grants given to Pennsylvania students, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate said Friday.

Onorato made several late-week campaign stops in the State College area, including on the Penn State University Park campus. At the HUB-Robeson Center, he told StateCollege.com that larger PHEAA grants for in-state college students would dramatically improve access to higher education.

Average grants from PHEAA, or the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, now range from $1,600 to $3,500 a year for students at Penn State, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University. Tuition for an average in-state undergraduate at University Park now runs more than $13,000 a year, one of the highest rates among public universities in the U.S.

The state government's support for universities like Penn State is among the least generous in the country. That forces the school to raise tuition rates more sharply, university administrators have said.

Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, said tax revenue from the Marcellus Shale natural-gas production could free up state funds to finance bigger PHEAA grants over a several-year period.

"That (gas) industry is going to grow for a long time," said Onorato, a 1983 Penn State graduate. He also holds a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

More than a dozen Penn State students turned out to hear Onorato speak Friday afternoon. The university College Democrats group put together the event, held in a third-floor meeting room at the HUB.

Among Onorato's comments:

  • Making higher education more accessible and affordable will be key in strengthening the state's workforce. State funding for Pennsylvania's higher-education institutions should be equitable and reliable, even in difficult economic times.
  • If elected, he will work to shrink the size of the state Legislature and to make it more efficient.
  • Pennsylvania needs to recast the way it conducts across-the-board property reassessments. They should not be used "as a tax-increase vehicle. Right now, that's what it is."
  • To fix the troubled pension system for state employees, Harrisburg will need to scale back retirement benefits.
  • He will campaign fervently to increase voter turnout among college-age voters this year. Typically, turnout rates in that demographic group drop off in non-presidential-election years.
  • He will not endorse any candidate for lieutenant governor this spring. State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Philipsburg, whose district includes parts of the Centre Region, faces former Philadelphia City Controller Jonathan Saidel and former Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Riber-Smith for the Democratic nomination in that primary race.

Onorato said he plans to attend Saturday's Blue-White scrimmage before going on to campaign in western Pennsylvania. He is running against three other Democrats -- state Auditor General Jack Wagner, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel and state Sen. Anthony Williams -- for a gubernatorial nomination in the May 18 primary.

Wagner and Hoeffel also have made campaign stops at University Park, said College Democrats President Rob Ghormoz. The group does not endorse candidates in primary contests.

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