What If a Degree was Debt-Free?

The following is an op-ed co-written by Summer Search Philadelphia staff members Sylvia Watts McKinney, Executive Director, and Kaitlin Irvine, College Access and Success Manager.


Earlier this week, high school seniors in Philadelphia and across the U.S. celebrated College Signing Day, the official deadline for most students to make their final decisions about where they’ll be going to college. While those decisions are milestones worth celebrating, it’s important that we as a city, state, and country address the fact that they also come with a significant price tag, which is a challenge for most.

Higher education is a public good, but currently, financial aid, family income, and government support cannot keep up with the rising costs of a post-secondary degree. Imagine if a college education came without crippling costs or long-term debt.

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At Summer Search, we are firm in the belief that ensuring all young people can access and afford a post-secondary education is vital to positive societal change in Philly and beyond.

We support our students and their families starting in 10th grade by providing them with mentors, summer experiences, and 1-on-1 advising through the post-secondary application, financial aid, and choice processes.

We constantly are seeing financial aid letters from in-state, public 4-year universities that leave a $7,000 shortfall even with the maximum Pell and State Grant amounts, federal loans, and work-study awards. This shortfall means that our students are faced with the unfair choice of either not attending college or incurring long-term financial obligations that limit their career choices, mobility, freedom, and contributions.

When students don’t have to choose between working more than 20 hours per week or going to their history lecture, they can be more successful in school. When students don’t have to skimp on their meal plan to reduce their expenses or worry about where they’ll sleep that night, they are poised to be more successful.

According to the state of Pennsylvania, we rank #2 in the nation for highest student loan debt, at an average of $35,000 per graduate. Yet, over the past 5 years, the state’s funding has decreased by more than 35% per full-time college student.

However, several states and individual colleges have announced free-tuition and/or no-loans options to support students from low- and modest-income communities.

• New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, a last dollar tuition scholarship established in 2017, is supporting 22,000 students whose families make $100,000 or less in its inaugural year and provides funding for tuition expenses at 2- and 4-year public colleges in the state.

Brown University recently announced its elimination of loans from all students’ financial aid packages, replaced with scholarships.

• And in February, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced a last dollar tuition scholarship covering gaps for students from families making under $56,000 per year.

They have joined the movement known as the Campaign for Free College Tuition focused on supporting students in accessing and completing college degrees.

It’s time for Pennsylvania to step up and support its students, future workforce, and innovators if we want to grow and prosper as a state. It’s time we recognized that the onerous, often impossible costs of an education not only deprive deserving students but come at a cost to us all.

We would love to see free college for all, but at the very least a system that provides free tuition at our public 2- and 4-year colleges, allowing students to use federal and institutional aid to cover remaining costs.

In every neighborhood, in every part of our state, there is a student who wants to continue their education but can’t. That needs to change.


Related Story
Philadelphia Inquirer: “These are the Students Most Crushed By the Debt Crisis”

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