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Budget wrangling cuts $20M from Pennsylvania scholarship program touted by Corbett

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Gov. Tom Corbett announced his Ready to Succeed scholarship program with a bang last winter, pitching a proposal to set aside $25 million for grants for college students with family incomes up to $110,000 a year.

Corbett, who has come under fire for reducing subsidies to public universities, framed the proposal as an effort to help minimize debt for students who don't qualify for need-based aid but have completed at least one year of school with a 3.25 GPA. He vowed he wouldn't sign a budget without the program described as relief for hard-pressed, middle-income families.

After months of contentious budget negotiations, the program was quietly pared to $5 million.

“It was part of the budget negotiation,” said Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni. “Obviously, with declining revenues, difficult choices had to be made as to the size of the program. But the governor was glad it was included. The hope is to help more families in the future.”

The $5 million pool is enough to provide grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 to about 3,600 students, said Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency spokesman Keith New.

Those who qualify for grants — a maximum of $2,000 for full-time students and up to $1,000 for those studying part-time — probably won't get checks until well into the fall semester.

New said PHEAA staffers have spent the past several weeks pulling together guidelines for how the program will work, something they could not do until the budget was passed.

College financial-aid officers said they are just beginning to receive information about the program.

“It's really up in the air right now,” said Duquesne University financial aid director Richard Esposito. “We're supposed to receive the guidelines and institutional applications by Aug. 15 and submit applications to participate by Sept. 15.”

Esposito said PHEAA will forward the schools a roster of students who qualify for the grants based on income, and it will be up to the schools to certify a student's academic eligibility. Given the process, Esposito said it could be November before the grants are disbursed.

“At least they'll have something for the spring semester,” he said.

In Pennsylvania, with nearly 700,000 college students, officials originally estimated tens of thousands of students would qualify for the Ready to Succeed grants.

If that's the case, New said, it will be a matter of “first come, first serve,” and grants will be awarded to eligible students who filed their Free Applications for Federal Student Aid forms earliest.

University of Pittsburgh sophomore Malik Abrams, 19, is among those who would love to secure a grant.

“It would help so much,” Abrams said.

A double major in business and music, he's had to hustle to cover his costs at Pitt, where tuition increases to $16,872 a year this fall, making it the priciest public university in the nation.

Marci and Wayne Williams of Bucks County were visiting Pitt on Friday with their 17-year-old son Tyler, who wants to study engineering. The Williamses said any extra scholarship money would be helpful.

But Marci Williams isn't optimistic that lawmakers will increase aid programs in time to help pay for Tyler's education.

“I've about given up on lawmakers. They're too concerned with getting re-elected,” she said.

The Ready to Succeed grants will supplement PHEAA's longstanding need-based grant program. New said the need-based grants, which are funded in part with fees PHEAA is paid for servicing loans, are expected to average about $2,870 and will be capped at $4,011. New said about 165,000 students statewide will receive the grants.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at derdley@tribweb.com.

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