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Funding Follows Students: Make Educational Grants More Accessible

In the hubbub over Gov. Tom Corbett's statement about cuts in higher education in his budget address, there was one point that was lost: we need to find a new model for funding higher education and that model needs to be one in which the dollars follow the student. I couldn't agree more.

I understand the governor had to propose cuts to institutions to help balance this year's state budget, and appreciate that he chose to make those cuts equitable across the board for all Pennsylvania colleges and universities.

These cuts will likely mean even higher tuition costs for students, low- and middle-income students in particular.
Those of us in higher education and government must continue to find new ways to maintain and increase access to college for these students.

Private colleges and universities have been fundraising for student scholarships for years, and the vast majority of these institutional grants go to students who can demonstrate need. At Juniata, we provide about $20 million in institutional financial aid, which makes it possible for students from all income levels to attend.

How best to keep students in college and keep the final price tag for an education down? By turning the old newspaper adage "follow the money" on its head. The most effective way for the Commonwealth to partner with higher education is to embrace Corbett's model of having more state support follow the student. The best way to do this is through Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants.

PHEAA grants target low- and middle-income students, and provide direct state support to the student. This support creates the greatest access to higher education for these students, because the money can be used at any college or university in Pennsylvania.

Students choose colleges for a variety of reasons. Cost is just one of these. The choice of major area of study is another, and location is often high on a student's list. Other important reasons include how welcome or "at home" a student feels on a given campus, the size of the campus and its classes, and the availability of classes the student wants to take.

Most of these factors are critical in deciding which college or university has the best "fit" for each student. Unfortunately, middle class families all too often feel they must limit their choice of schools because they don't qualify for state or federal student aid.

The best way to ensure that each student can pursue an education at the institution that best suits his or her interests is to funnel as much state support as possible directly to the students. It is especially important that more middle class students receive PHEAA grants, so they have greater access and choice as well.

As the economy inevitably improves in coming years, I encourage the governor and legislature to consider dedicating more of the state's support for higher education to these direct-to-student grants.

A relatively small amount of money would have a big impact on increasing access to college for low- and middle-income students. For instance, taking $78 million, about 12 percent of the institutional aid reduction proposed in this year's budget, and putting that toward PHEAA grants would:

These are meaningful amounts of money for middle-class families, looking hard for ways to send their children to college.

Rather than decry budget cuts and other belt tightening in one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history, college and universities should applaud Governor Corbett for his forward-looking philosophy, and encourage other state leaders to work with him to implement this new model for higher education funding.

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.