(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania Republicans are seeking to disrupt higher education by creating a voucher program giving hundreds of millions of dollars directly to students — but would fund it with taxpayer money that would otherwise go to universities related to the Commonwealth state.
The growing gap between public approval of higher education along political lines is beginning to show as Republicans question how good universities are for the public.
The law project, HB2639would create the Pennsylvania College Voucher Program and fund it from appropriations given to state-related universities (the bill singles out the University of Pittsburgh, but Penn State and Temple universities are also state-related).
Students could use the voucher to attend a technical school, community college, or public or private four-year college. It would also order that a study be carried out on the removal of the state-related designation of universities and their designation as private institutions.
The motivation is a lack of transparency and accountability by universities to the public, said Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Greensburg, sponsor of the bill. Pitt, Penn State and Temple receive about $580 million from the General Assembly, he noted.
“It’s amazing there’s no reporting or transparency on how that money is being spent,” Nelson said.
Funding these schools would give an annual voucher of $8,000 for students whose families earned up to $100,000 and a voucher of $4,000 for students whose families earned up to $250,000; Nelson estimated it would help 41,000 Pennsylvania students.
“The student would receive the voucher and could apply it wherever they choose to go,” Nelson said. “It’s a pretty big change without raising taxes and it’s a real game-changer.”
Pennsylvania’s higher education systems struggled to enroll as the state’s college-age population plummeted over the decade, high tuition in the state, and a national decline in registrations since the pandemic.
The emphasis on the University of Pittsburgh in recent years has come from its use of fetal tissue in academic research. State lawmakers have criticized the research and an independent investigation funded by the university found that it did not violate any laws or regulations. The Conservatives had strong reviews the limited scope of the investigation.
The General Assembly’s more critical approach to higher education funding reflects changing views on universities. A Pew Research Center poll noted that while 67% of Democrats said college had a positive effect on the country, only 33% of Republicans agreed.
“Today’s citizen wants more control over their own future choices, it’s not like things were in the 60s when they put those state-related things in the budget,” Nelson said. .
A lack of responsiveness to public concerns, whether financial or political, has meant that “there is anger among citizens,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s bill was referred to the House Education Committee.