Would You Go To College If It Was More Affordable?

Governor Shapiro appears to have a plan. 

The Governor wants to make college more affordable. He wants to make a productive career upon graduation more of a certainty. He wants to make higher education the real pathway to social mobility we like to tell ourselves it is.

Look. If the man can galvanize folks to rebuild a bridge on I-95 in two weeks, perhaps we shouldn’t bet against him on this.

But we should be clear–this is an absolutely massive task. College in Pennsylvania isn’t cheap. It’s also no guarantee of gainful employment upon graduation.

Yes, it is absolutely a worthy investment and is a critical path for young people on their way to a life of financial security and personal flourishing. But it isn’t delivering for too many young people–especially those who are Black, brown, and low-income. And it’s keeping us from doing something absolutely essential for improving educational equity and opportunity in our state—diversifying our teaching force.

Pennsylvania students pay nearly $9,000 more per year to attend the state’s colleges and universities than their peers do in their respective states on average. The result is that Pennsylvania has the third highest percentage of college graduates carrying student loan debt in the nation. Black and Brown students carry the most debt along with first-generation college graduates.  Black graduates, on average, owe $25,000 more in student loan debt than their white peers, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Black and brown teachers are among the most student debt-burdened young professionals in the state. Elevate 215’s recent study showed that Black teachers cite their crushing loan debt as a barrier to staying in the profession, pushing the state, already woefully behind our other states in this category, further back in the pack. Which is a problem for our schools because teachers of color improve outcomes for not just Black and brown students, but all students.  Research shows the presence of just one Black teacher higher high school graduation rates, reduced behavioral issues, and generally improves student trajectories.

Couple this with the fact that the state’s youth unemployment rate (which includes recent college grads) typically runs more than double the overall adult rate and we have a state chock full of financially strained, underemployed young people. The great equalizer of higher education is actually governed by economics that make social mobility as elusive as sand running through splayed fingers.

That’s not a path for economic prosperity for the state, progress for our young people, or improvement for our schools.

Enter Governor Shaprio. 

At the end of January, he released what he aptly called a “New Blueprint for Higher Education, Focused on Competitiveness and Workforce Development & Grounded in Access and Affordability”. Making headlines is the blueprint’s $1,000 per semester cap on tuition and fees at state-owned universities and community colleges for Pennsylvania students making $70,000 or less. But there’s much more to it.

The plan looks to reverse the state’s decades-long disinvestment in higher ed by implementing a performance-based funding model.  The goal of the new model is to push colleges and universities to ensure students graduate with in-demand credentials and qualifications. The blueprint would also overhaul the governance of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), combining it with the state’s 15 community colleges to create more affordable and accessible pathways to graduation and workforce credentials.  Vitally, the plan will prioritize the enrollment and graduation of first-generation college students. 

Penn State president Neeli Bendapudi has already endorsed the major tenants of the Governor’s plan and even Republican leaders are saying positive things. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said he appreciated the Governor’s plan and believes it is “well intended”.

Well, gas up the fire trucks and get Swoop, Gritty, and the Phantic ready, because we might be parading across a bridge of another sort soon in the Keystone State. 

In reality, we’re miles away from any ticker-tape moments, but the fact that even Republican leadership isn’t dismissing the effort out of hand is an indication of how compelling, sensible, and just plain smart the Governor’s plan is.  It’s also just the right thing to do.

Our state has underfunded K-12 schools by billions for decades–$4.6 billion according to experts testifying during the school funding lawsuit trial in 2022. That underfunding was disproportionately shouldered by low-income schools and districts, predominantly attended by Black and brown students. The state’s history of disparate funding made it one of the most inequitable education funders in the nation.

There seems to be an emerging progress broadly for our state’s education policy. From the much needed changes to K-12 funding being advanced by the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission to the signing of a new school code and the bipartisan effort by Senators Vincent Hughes and Ryan Aument permitting career education credits for students interested in exploring and pursuing teaching as a career.

In concert with Governor Shapiro’s higher education blueprint, it seems we may have more than a puncher’s chance of actually making meaningful progress to address generations of failure for Pennsylvania’s students, especially low-income, Black, and brown students. 

An adequately and equitably funded K-12 system with robust connections to affordable, high-quality higher ed that leads to long-term employability would be nothing short of transformational for the lives of our young people and for the future of our state’s economy. 

The Governor’s Blueprint for higher education is as clear-eyed as it is ambitious, as sensible as it is just.  It’s yet another example of how a state’s chief executive can  direct attention and focus on advancing real solutions for our state’s most pressing challenges.

A version of this letter initially appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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