The governor of Pennsylvania is offering a new grant – Natural Self Esteem

Pennsylvania (PA) has some of the most expensive public colleges in the country. The average state tuition and fees at public four-year PA colleges is over $15,000, with costs surpassed only by Vermont and New Hampshire. PA students also borrow far more than most, with the average debt exceeding $39,000. It will therefore be welcome news for students and families that the governor has proposed a $200 million scholarship program for students attending a community college or PA state institution. But the program design raises some questions about whether it’s the best approach.

Details on how the program will be implemented are scant and it has yet to make its way through PA legislation. At first glance, however, the program design could be improved by looking at the recent research on free college programs.

The Nellie Bly Fellowship program, named for the pioneering investigative reporter who became one of the leading journalists of the 19th centuryth Century aims to make public higher education more affordable for PA students. The scholarship will help fund tuition and “relevant attendance costs,” although the press release announcing the scholarship did not specify what is considered relevant.

While this program isn’t as generous as the free college moves recently implemented by other states, increasing financial aid to help students who can’t afford college is a step in the right direction. However, the program is more complicated than research suggests. It is ideal for designing programs that encourage students to apply and enroll in higher education and to reduce the burden of debt on those students.

“A good education can prepare a person for a successful life. But pursuing that education can often be an unattainable dream as costs skyrocket and student debt looms,” Gov. Wolf said. “Let’s help Pennsylvania students thrive and get money flowing into the economy instead of shouldering debt that’s the equivalent of a down payment on a new home.”

The scholarship program excludes students attending the PA state institutions. These are Penn State, Temple, University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University. These institutions receive some government funding, but less than the other public institutions in PA. In return, they have more autonomy in how they work. All state institutions enroll a significant number of students with high financial needs, leaving these students excluded without the additional support that this scholarship could provide.

The scholarship is funded by funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and the PA Race Horse Development Fund. One issue not addressed is how funding will be maintained once ARP’s funds are exhausted. ARP funds, while generous, are not intended as an ongoing stream of funding. The funds can be used until 2024, after which additional government funding must be identified to continue the program. It’s not clear if there is a plan to replace ARP funding after 2024.

Students who receive the scholarship must remain and work in PA for at least as long as they received the scholarship. This is to ensure that students who benefit from the scholarship remain in PA and contribute to the support and growth of the PA economy. Students who leave the state early have the scholarship amount converted into a loan that they have to repay. Few states have post-graduation residency requirements in their scholarship programs, so it’s hard to judge whether this provision will help retain talent in PA.

Any increase in financial support resources for students is welcome, but program design is important. The Nellie Bly Scholarship seems more complicated than ideal with the limited details available. A simpler design or even a robust push-for-true-promise program would be a more effective approach. Research shows that simple programs are easier for students to teach and are more likely to help those students succeed in college. There is still time to improve this scholarship program before it goes into effect.

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