Plan for Pennsylvania's higher education system is designed to prevent young talent from going elsewhere

By Scott Martin and Jesse Topper

Young high school graduates face the difficult decision of what they want to do next. For many people, studying is too expensive. But this problem is just one of many that threaten the future of our Commonwealth.

Higher education is expensive. University enrollments are declining. Kindergarten classes are shrinking. Our population is aging. Too many Pennsylvania high school graduates are persuaded to attend out-of-state colleges. And even many of those who stay in Pennsylvania to study take their talents to other states after graduation.

Therefore, population growth projections in Pennsylvania are poor. The Center for Rural Pennsylvania estimates the state's population will grow just 1.6% through 2050, compared to a statewide population growth of 20%.

If Pennsylvania fails to reverse these trends, the state will face even greater problems in the future in the form of larger budget deficits, higher taxes and higher costs of caring for an aging population. The consequences will be less representation in Congress, less federal funding returning to Pennsylvania, and fewer career opportunities for those who remain in the state.

It is a downward spiral that threatens our future prosperity. To reverse these trends and chart a better course, we must rethink how we approach postsecondary education and job training.

That's why we recently announced the Grow PA reform plan for postsecondary and career readiness programs to ensure Pennsylvania can rely on an educated workforce ready to pursue family-sustaining careers in the industries our Commonwealth needs most.

Grow PA is creating two programs to retain more of our homegrown talent and encourage the best and brightest students from other states to come to Pennsylvania.

The Grow PA Scholarship Program would provide a strong financial incentive – up to $5,000 per year – for domestic students to pursue careers in high-demand industries, including agriculture, energy, healthcare, education, law enforcement and more. Additionally, a new Grow PA Merit Scholarship Program would offer high-performing out-of-state students tuition at statewide rates if they agree to attend schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Both programs would require students to live and work in Pennsylvania for a period of time after graduation. Given the amount of tuition savings these students could achieve, we believe they will find it a fair trade.

This approach also addresses Pennsylvania's critical workforce needs. We need more teachers, more law enforcement, more farmers, more large animal veterinarians and more health care professionals. Grow PA achieves these goals by adapting our educational programs to the high-quality workplaces here at home.

Implementing these programs would send a strong message to young people: We want you to get an affordable, quality education in Pennsylvania, advance your career here, and put down roots here.

Grow PA doesn’t just create new programs to attract and retain talent; it also expands other successful educational programs. These include dual enrollment, Ready to Succeed scholarships, the Targeted Industry Support Program and the Foster/Adopted Child Program.

The plan isn't just about college. We will also invest in our career and technical centers to keep the supply of young talent open to growing employers in Pennsylvania.

Our plan also adds a critical layer of accountability to funding for state institutions like Pitt, Penn State and Temple by creating a performance-based funding model for these institutions. This ensures that every dollar invested in these schools delivers the best possible outcome for taxpayers.

It is widely recognized that we must do something to improve Pennsylvania's higher education system. We cannot rely on ready-made solutions from big governments that judge government performance solely based on how much tax money we spend. We need practical solutions focused on positive outcomes for our students, families and communities.

Grow PA offers a true blueprint to make Pennsylvania more competitive in higher education, workforce development and economic success. We believe our approach can win cross-party support and start helping young people immediately.

We hope this plan will be the start of positive new trends – young people coming here, staying here, finding jobs here, buying homes here and helping our communities become healthier and more vibrant.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, represents parts of Lancaster and Berks counties. Pennsylvania state Rep. Jesse Topper, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee, represents Bedford and Fulton counties. This comment first appeared on Really clear Pennsylvania.

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