Governor Tom Corbett has included a new initiative, “Ready to Succeed Scholarships” (RTSS), in his 2014-15 budget proposal aimed at assisting middle income families to pay for a college education. In announcing the plan, the Governor Corbett acknowledged growing concern about the affordability of education and asked Pennsylvania colleges to join with him in holding the line on student debt.

In January 2013, Wilson College completed a lengthy self-examination and one of primary outcomes was an institutional commitment to the value and affordability of a Wilson degree. The process affirmed the advantages and value of a liberal arts education: career-specific learning with broad educational exposure, smaller class sizes that foster greater faculty/student interaction and improved learning, and the development of critical thinking, communication and complex problem-solving skills that are in high demand from employers today.

Wilson College trustees took important steps regarding affordability by reducing our tuition by 17 percent, or $5,000, for women and men enrolling as full-time undergraduate students at Wilson for the first time this fall. We also introduced a first-of-its-kind student debt buyback program that allows students to earn up to $10,000 toward their federal Stafford Loan debt. In seeing the details of Governor Corbett’s “Ready to Succeed Scholarships,” Wilson is in full support of the steps taken to aid an audience that is often forgotten in higher education with regard to financial aid—middle income families. I strongly encourage the state’s legislature to ensure that a strong RTSS program is part of the final state budget.

RTSS, along with the initiatives at Wilson, demonstrates the true meaning of “ready to succeed” in college. A post-secondary education is not only a partnership between a student and a college, but with the state as well. The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency distributes more than $452 million dollars in grants annually to the state’s college students, giving the state a real stake in this partnership. As Governor Corbett said, “every dollar invested in a child is a dollar invested in the future of the Commonwealth.”

The state and its colleges—both private and public—provide increased access to higher education through a variety of aid opportunities, but students need to be prepared to take advantage of them. Like Wilson’s student debt buyback program, RTSS comes with academic requirements to qualify. Students must earn a minimum of a 3.25 grade-point average in college. Similarly, students must earn at least a 3.5 GPA at Wilson to qualify at the entry level of our student debt buyback.

For their part, students can help control their debt through planning and performance. Those who perform well prior to college can realize the maximum benefit in reducing college costs through merit scholarships, which reward high school academic accomplishments. At Wilson, this can mean reducing a student’s tuition by more than 50 percent. Maintaining academic achievement, along with sound planning while in college, can help ensure graduation in four years, which saves students on debt. Each additional year of school adds to a student’s debt level upon graduation and affects the relative value of their education.

Controlling student debt enables our students to fully leverage the economic advantages of a college degree. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania reports that in Pennsylvania, this represents a $20,000 difference in median income between those who earn a college bachelor’s degree and those with just a high school degree ($48,127 vs. $27,930).

The common misperception of Pennsylvania’s independent colleges is that we only serve the wealthiest of our citizens, but this is far from reality. Wilson’s enrollment has a median family income of $74,000, includes more than 30 percent first-generation students and serves a student population in which 44 percent are eligible for Pell Grants—federal grants awarded to moderate- and low-income families. And 97 percent of our students receive some from of aid from more than 100 scholarships and other aid opportunities provided by the college. This is all part of Wilson College’s commitment to our students to provide value and affordability in a Wilson degree.

What does ready to succeed mean when it comes to higher education and reducing debt? It is colleges, students and the state all coming together in a partnership that allows each to thrive. For students, it means being ready to take advantage of the opportunity, both in their education and their careers. For colleges, it is attracting a diverse student body that is engaged in the campus community, enriching the academic experience for all. And for the state, it means serving its citizens, building a stronger economy and attracting new business.

As Governor Corbett said in his announcement, when people ask “if Pennsylvania has prepared our young adults in the trades and disciplines that are always in demand … our answer will be ‘Yes’.”