Wolf addresses PA’s ‘highest student debt’ ranking

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 2/26/20

HARRISBURG, PA — Alison Martin, a recent graduate from Bloomsburg University, has been trying to minimize her student loans since before her college career even started.

As a senior at …

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Wolf addresses PA’s ‘highest student debt’ ranking

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HARRISBURG, PA — A recent graduate from Bloomsburg University, who preferred not to be named, has been trying to minimize her student loans since before her college career even started.

As a senior at Honesdale High School, she worked hard to get local scholarships which helped defray the cost of tuition and textbooks, maintained two to three part-time jobs sophomore through senior years of college and optimized her schedule so she could finish a semester early. She now works in Scranton, PA but lives with her parents in Honesdale so that she can use what would be rent money on paying loans back.

Whether they have spent years preparing for it or are now scrambling to make each monthly payment on time, 65 percent of all Pennsylvania graduates have some student debt.

According to data from the Institute for College Access & Success, graduates from schools in PA have an average debt of about $37,000—the highest average behind only Connecticut. And, at $68 billion statewide, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) produces more debt than any state-system in the country.

Trying to address this issue, Gov. Tom Wolf has shaken things up in Harrisburg with his recent budget proposal for 2020-21. Part of the proposal includes diverting $204 million away from the Horse Racing Development Fund and using it to create the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program. In past years, the horse-racing industry has been bankrolled by the state, which provided the prize money for the winning horse owners. In 2018, The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that horse racing received more state funding than both the departments of health and agriculture.

Now, Wolf wants to put that money toward education. The scholarship funds would be eligible for students enrolling in a PASSHE undergraduate program who also qualify for a federally subsidized student loan. It also requires students to commit to living in PA after graduating for the same number of years that they received scholarship funding.

“Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling race horse owners and ensure the viability of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education,” Wolf said in his budget address.
The equine industry and some Republican lawmakers have voiced vehement opposition to Wolf’s proposal, which Pete Peterson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, has referred to as a “scheme” that would hurt not only the horse-racing industry but farmers across the commonwealth.

“Race horse owners and breeders whose operations preserve 100,000 acres of open space in Pennsylvania would be put out of business,” Peterson said. “Hundreds of farmers… would face financial ruin. This anti-agriculture budget could not come at a worse time for many Pennsylvania farmers who are already struggling financially, as evidenced by a 20 percent increase in farm bankruptcies in 2019.”

Peterson has also argued that the governor is going back on a promise he made in 2017, when he first established the horse trust fund and forbade that money from being used for other purposes.

Honesdale resident Clarence Martin Jr. who owns a horse race starting gate business, Martin’s Starting Gates, said that Wolf’s proposal poses a threat to his livelihood.

“The PA Racehorse Development Trust Fund has helped us go from one starting gate 10 years ago, to three gates last year and a fourth that is being built right now.” Clarence said. “The proposed raid of the fund would destroy the breeding industry in PA and would result in far lower [prize winnings]. Both of these things would result in far less races, and the number of races is what drives our starting business.”

The recent graduate didn’t fall firmly on either side of the debate, feeling general discomfort with potentially too much government involvement, but seeing the value in helping students get through school.

“I just think when the government gets its hands in things, it can get a little bit messy,” she said, calling herself a “small government kind of person.” “But when it’s a scholarship, that’s a different sort of thing, you’re helping kids get through college—definitely a good thing."

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