A bill to remove a financial hurdle for young undocumented immigrants who want to attend a public college or university in Pennsylvania was in the spotlight last week at a Senate hearing on making higher education more accessible and affordable.

The measure is called the Pennsylvania Dream Act and would enable high school graduates who aren't American citizens but have lived in the state for years to pay the lower in-state tuition rate at state-owned and state-related universities and community colleges.

A high school student who can offer proof of attending at least two years of high school and meet state residency requirements for financial aid would pay the in-state tuition rate rather than an out-of-state tuition rate, which can cost substantially more, if the legislation is enacted. These rates can vary depending upon the academic institution.

About 1,000 students would benefit from this bill at the start, said Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-13, Lancaster, the bill sponsor.

While comprehensive immigration reform is debated in Washington, Smucker's bill seeks to help teenagers who have immigrated to this country illegally years before with their parents and attended elementary and secondary schools here.

Smucker told the Education Committee that the state should remove monetary barriers that prevent these students from pursuing higher education and becoming contributing citizens.

"This does not reduce admission standards for anyone, nor does it guarantee you a spot," said Smucker. "It merely removes a significant financial penalty that prevents some highly capable students from pursuing higher education."

911 center merger

A wave of consolidations of county-run 911 emergency call centers could be on the horizon with final passage last week of legislation that addresses some funding issues for the statewide system, said Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Township, Luzerne County, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

The legislation that goes to Gov. Tom Corbett for signing would give the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency a green light to foster regional mergers of 911 centers and other cost-sharing steps such as joint purchasing. A merger affecting 911 centers in northwest Pennsylvania is seen as a model for the effort.

"The ultimate goal is to have a public safety communication system at reduced cost," PEMA Director Glenn Cannon said in testimony last month before Baker's committee.

(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: rswift@timesshamrock.com.)