For two years running, city schools have seen a promising increase in the number of high school graduates going straight into college.
But that trend is now in jeopardy.
Local and state budget cuts are decimating key programs and personnel that help students see college as a goal and navigate admissions. On top of last year's deep cuts to schools and the central office, the District plans to eliminate funding for nearly 100 counselors.
At the same time, higher education cutbacks are causing tuition to soar, financial aid to decline, and student debt to skyrocket.
"The chances of going to college in Philadelphia are not nearly as good as [they are] in other places in the country, and there's no public plan for the future of these systems," said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Higher Education Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's absolute chaos."
Already, the student share of college costs in Pennsylvania is one of the highest in the country, said Rita Kirshstein, director of the Delta Cost Project of the American Institutes for Research. "The national average is 52 percent. In Pennsylvania, it is 70 percent, and that was a couple of years ago. It is even higher now."
Pennsylvania is changing from a "high tuition, high aid" state to a "high tuition, high debt" state, Finney said.
Gov. Corbett slashed higher education spending last year and is proposing more cuts this year – 30 percent for the state system, 20 percent for state-related universities, and smaller reductions for community colleges.
If any of Corbett's proposed cuts get through the legislature – the Senate balked, passing a budget that restored them – it could further limit college-going opportunities. Combined with recent tightening of eligibility requirements for federal Pell grants, "there is great potential for cutting access for a large group of students," Kirshstein said.
State and federal policies that are driving up tuition costs are "undermining" the city's efforts to increase the percentage of residents with a college degree, said Mayor Nutter.
Community College of Philadelphia, which is the destination for about a third of District graduates who pursue college, has raised tuition 5 percent this year and plans another 5 percent increase next year.
While it is still the most affordable option, said Steven Curtis, CCP's president, "at every level, federal state, and local, the lack of general support for public higher education is whittling away opportunities."
"In some cases, we try to fill in gaps; in other cases, we simply don't have the resources."
The state's share of CCP's funding declined from 37 percent 10 years ago to 23 percent now; the city share is down from 24 percent in 2001-02 to less than 15 percent this year. That leaves about 60 percent of the burden on the students.
Finney, who has worked with more than 20 states on their higher education policy, decried what she termed a "lack of dialogue" in Pennsylvania about the role of education in providing opportunities and setting the Commonwealth's economic course.
"The state has no plan to fund higher education in the future. It is simply cutting and shifting the cost to students," she said.
Nutter didn't disagree.
"I haven't had that level of conversation with the governor or legislative leaders in Harrisburg," said the mayor. "I'd certainly like to think there is [a plan] somewhere."
Finney said she admires Mayor Nutter's college-attainment goals, but doesn't see how he can meet them in the current climate.
"He needs the state as a partner," she said, "and right now he doesn't have the state as a partner."
Tim Eller, an administration spokesman, said that the governor has appointed an advisory commission "to review all aspects of higher education ... including affordability and accessibility," as well as make recommendations for "a robust and responsive" system.
For starters, Eller said, the state is moving deadlines for aid applications to accommodate more community college students, who typically decide to enroll much later in the year.
Philadelphia hit hard
On many levels, Philadelphia students are among the hardest hit, as the higher ed cuts are compounded by the School District's budget crisis. Virtually everything that is not directly mandated has been slashed or eliminated, and that includes many college access and support services.
"The challenge when budgetary issues came up was that these services could be seen as an extra," said Karen Campbell, who worked on college access at the District for a dozen years and is now is director of young alumni support at Girard College.
What programs remain are funded almost entirely through federal grants; there are virtually no operating budget dollars devoted to them. For instance, the Office of College and Career Awareness no longer exists.
While declaring his intention to protect school budgets from further reductions next year, Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said the system's dire financial straits nevertheless will force the elimination of 97 counselor positions. The District had used federal funds to add counselors to schools to reduce their caseload so they could better advise students on course-taking and college applications.
"The reduction of counselors is going to impact kids in schools where principals decide to cut them without a plan to have services provided in another way," said Naomi Houseman, co-deputy chief of the Office of Counseling and Promotion Standards. "We don't know yet what it will look like."
Already, the dearth of counselors – the state requires only one per school – is "embarrassing," said Laura Perna, a professor at Penn's Graduate School of Education and expert on college access and affordability. "It is not sufficient to help students navigate the complexities of going to college. And it hits urban, low-resourced schools the hardest."
Also gone this year is state money for dual enrollment, in which 450 District students have been able to take college-level courses while still in high school.
CCP tried to keep it alive by discounting tuition for the courses, Curtis said, but the number of students using this program has been cut in half.
The District is no longer able to pay the fees for some 16,000 10th and 11th graders to take the PSAT, which officials said "undoubtedly" has led to fewer students taking it.
There is no more Advanced Placement coordinator, meaning less if any training for AP teachers and no monitoring of quality. Robotics programs – which helped many students get higher-level science and problem-solving experience – have also been cut.
In addition, there are fewer opportunities for students to visit colleges.
Relentless budget cuts have "forced principals and offices to look at partnerships and resources outside and leverage and use more resources effectively rather than focus on operating dollars," said Mike Cruz of the District's Office of Counseling and Promotion.
Cruz doesn't know yet whether his department will survive the planned downsizing of the central office.
The most prominent federal grant devoted to college attainment is GEAR-UP, which in Philadelphia follows cohorts of students starting in middle school, taking them on college visits and providing other services. It is now in 26 middle schools and 12 high schools.
The District has had three GEAR-UP grants over the past decade; it may not see any more of that money when the students now involved in the program graduate in 2014 and 2015.
Other funding has come from the U.S. Department of Labor grants to improve school climate, which are used for mentoring and other supports to help students plan beyond high school.
The DOL grants pay for Student Success Centers in 10 high schools, said grant manager Tanya Ruley-Mayo. Two centers were eliminated this year, at Simon Gratz (now run as a Mastery charter) and at Benjamin Franklin High. Centers still exist at Bartram, FitzSimons, Germantown, Lincoln, Overbrook, University City, West Philadelphia, Edison, Fels, and Frankford.
The DOL grants, though, are due to run out at the end of next year. There is no guarantee they will be renewed.