2008-11-13 / Local & State

Pa. Education Board Tries To Attack College Costs

By Martha Raffaele ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Ashley Lovejoy has learned that her dream of becoming a special-education teacher comes with a hefty price tag.

The road to a bachelor's degree from Edinboro University, a state school, has left Lovejoy nearly $43,000 in debt, and she still has another year until graduation.

Lovejoy, 22, was among numerous students and college officials who aired concerns in recent public forums across Pennsylvania. They say that a college education - increasingly deemed a necessity by business leaders and education policymakers - has become a luxury increasingly beyond the reach of young people.

"With the starting salary of a teacher averaging around $30,000 a year I fear for how I will be able to repay my student loans and pay for my everyday necessities to live,'' Lovejoy said in testimony before the State Board of Education's higher education council.

In Pennsylvania, the average student loan debt for members of the class of 2007 was $23,613 - the sixthhighest in the nation, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Project on Student Debt.

The nation's current economic crisis has also brought into sharp focus the widening gap between college costs and the ability of students and parents to pay. Wall Street's woes are battering college-savings plans and private college endowments, and the credit crunch has made borrowing for college more difficult.

Pennsylvania's student-loan agency cut spending on its college grant program for 2008-09, and the state's growing budget shortfall has forced public four-year schools to prepare for a possible spending freeze - sparking worries about the fate of state aid to universities next year.

Against this backdrop, the higher education council is asking the Education Department to present information on college affordability at its meeting later this month.

But don't expect solutions to such a complex problem to emerge right away. Board chairman Joseph Torsella said it is too early to say what the council's inquiry may yield.

College access and affordability are concerns already mentioned in the state's master plan for higher education, but "the problem really has mushroomed,'' Torsella said.

"To the extent there was a gap before between what (financial) aid covers and what the costs are ... that gap is growing quickly and seems to be growing in ways that should make all of us worry,'' he said.

Among the more stunning revelations, Torsella said, was that some students were skimping on basic necessities like food in order to pay tuition.

In testimony presented Oct. 23, Luzerne County Community College President Thomas P. Leary said his school had recently raised more than $1,000 for a new emergency fund to help students buy meal tickets for breakfast and lunch on campus.

"Faculty and staff have encountered students who have been on campus all day ... who have not had a thing to eat because they did not have the money,'' Leary said.

The school has another emergency fund for textbooks, which cash-strapped students sometimes delay buying, Leary added.

When the council meets Nov. 19, it hopes to gain a better understanding from the department about the availability of financial aid, the debt students carry, and the extent to which families are relying on private loans to finance college costs, said James Buckheit, the board's executive director.

Torsella said he hopes the exercise will at least spur conversations about the cost of higher education among people at the schools and in government. He said a report on its findings could come as early as January.

"This wasn't intended to be, 'Whose fault is this?' because there are a lot of different moving pieces,'' he said.

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