‘College should not be this expensive’: Pitt programs aim to make education more affordable


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A pile of cash.

By Spencer Levering, Staff Writer

After completing her final semester of college and graduating this spring, Pitt alumni Airi Tilley now faces a new challenge — paying her student loan debts.

“As someone who is a first-generation college student, unfortunately it is common for many of us to have lots of college debt or not have a lot of resources compared to our fellow students when it comes to being able to afford college,” Tilley said.

According to recent reporting by The Pitt News and PublicSource, the University of Pittsburgh’s in-state tuition and fees last academic year were the most expensive in the nation when compared to 34 other leading public research universities. Tilley, an in-state student, graduated from Pitt with $40,000 of student loan debt.

“College should not be this expensive,” Tilley said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who are struggling with poverty and it’s really unfortunate. We’re so young and we’re also having to go to school full-time and then deal with the consequences of poverty. It’s really hard.”

The University currently offers six “student success programs.” Four of these programs are specific to Pitt and are aimed at helping students and families understand, prepare for and afford the cost of a Pitt education.

Rising seniors can apply to Panthers Forward, an organization founded five years ago whose members receive up to $5,000 of federal student loan debt relief as well as networking events, mentor discussions and financial wellness resources.

“Access and affordability are important for college students,” said Sarah Cullen, director of Panthers Forward. “Personally, it is the knowledge and education around cost, spending and expenses that really drives my work.”

To be considered, applicants must be full-time students at the Pittsburgh campus, in their last year of college, in good academic standing and using a federal loan to fund their final year at Pitt. Beyond those requirements, applicants are asked to provide information regarding volunteering and work experience, plans after graduation, extracurricular activities and a reference. Cullen estimates around 500 students apply to Panthers Forward each year and 150 are accepted each year. This year’s applications open on Sept. 1 and close on Sept. 24.

In her senior year, Tilley became a member of Panthers Forward to reduce the burden of her student loan debt.

“The application process was so easy, and I was actually shocked that more people didn’t apply for it,” Tilley said.

While Panthers Forward provides events for its members, Cullen noted that attendance is optional.

“Our programming is not required, but we work to provide impactful resources and events to participating students,” Cullen said. “We also supply suggested budgeting and modeling resources specifically teaching students how to manage the costs/debt associated with attending college.”

Tilley appreciates the hands-off approach Panthers Forward has towards its members.

“It’s very chill, honestly,” Tilley said. “Nothing is mandatory. The events aren’t mandatory, to even talk to someone in Panthers Forward isn’t mandatory. It’s just to accept their award, and if you want to participate, you can.”

This attitude extends toward Panthers Forward’s “pay-it-forward” pledge, an optional monthly donation that helps fund the program.

“Panthers Forward graduates are not required to provide any financial contribution,” Cullen said. “We hope that the experience is one that is meaningful and something that each participant wants to support as it is passed down to the next generation of Pitt graduates.”

While limited to 150 participants now, Cullen says Panthers Forward will “continue to evaluate the best way to scale and share the experiences with more students.”

For students eligible to receive a Pell Grant to fund their college education, Pitt offers the Pitt Success Pell Match Program. Established in 2019, the initiative makes Pitt match the worth of a student’s Pell Grant dollar for dollar. With Pell Grants being worth up to $7,395 in the 2023-24 academic year, eligible students can receive up to $14,790 in academic funding from just the Pell Grant and the Pell Match Program. 

“Pitt’s Pell Success program has been helping to improve retention for students struggling with costs,” said Pitt spokesperson Jared Stonesifer. According to Stonesifer, about 5,000 Pitt students currently benefit from a Pell Grant, marking a 13.7% increase since the program was created.

For current Pitt students, PittFund$Me is a database that lets students find and apply for scholarships. After a student answers a series of questions, the website will attempt to match them with scholarships they qualify for, and the student can manage their scholarship applications through PittFund$Me.

For Pittsburgh Public Schools high school students, the Pittsburgh Public Scholars program offers valedictorians and salutatorians of every 6-12 or 9-12 Pittsburgh Public School guaranteed admission into the University of Pittsburgh as well as a scholarship worth at least $2,000. However, if a student earns a merit scholarship from Pitt, it will replace the scholarship offered by the Pittsburgh Public Scholars program.

After graduating, Tilley said she empathizes with the “hopeless feeling” shared among students struggling to pay for college, but she encourages them to not give up.

“I really think it’s fair for any student to try their best to make it as cheap as possible,” Tilley said. “There’s grants, there’s work opportunities that Pitt has, and if you really look and you apply, you will get that money.”

Even though Tilley benefitted from Pitt’s affordability programs, she hopes the University will work harder to support its students.

“I’m definitely proud to be a Pitt graduate, I’m happy to have gone to Pitt, but I definitely think institutions need to be held more accountable and take care of their students. At the end of the day, we deserve to be taken care of,” Tilley said.