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Wolf renews higher-ed scholarship idea amid worker shortage

This is the Renna M. Carlson Library on the campus of Clarion University in Clarion, Pa, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.
This is the Renna M. Carlson Library on the campus of Clarion University in Clarion, Pa, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

Gov. Tom Wolf says it's time for lawmakers to get on board with his proposed college scholarship program, saying it's urgently needed because of difficulties finding workers across industries.

In an interview Wednesday, Wolf said the program makes sense because Pennsylvania's state government is currently in a strong financial position, and because of a growing demand for workers, including college graduates.

“When you think about the challenges that we’re going to be facing in the next couple of years, it’s going to be not, ‘Where can we get jobs?’ It’s ’Where can we get skills?” Wolf said.

Wolf's first scholarship proposal two years agocame just before the pandemic, which dominated activity in the state Capitol and drowned out just about everything else. It also failed to get traction with Republicans who control the Legislature, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said Wednesday that the plan is “dead on arrival.”

But, by just about every measure there is, Pennsylvania is still ranked at the bottom among states in the level of state aid for higher education, size of student debt and affordability of its colleges.

Meanwhile, Dan Greenstein, chancellor of the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, has warned repeatedly that Pennsylvania is not graduating enough college students to keep up with demand, putting the state at risk of losing industries that go elsewhere in search of talent.

Wolf is floating the plan again, with some differences.

The governor's proposal involves drawing $200 million a year, the same amount. But he's scaling back its reliance on money from state taxes on casino gambling — money that currently goes to subsidize the horse-racing industry. Instead, he wants to use federal coronavirus relief funds, at least for the first couple years.

Wolf's new plan also makes students at Pennsylvania's 15 public community colleges eligible, not just those at the 14 state system universities.

Students must meet certain family income limits, graduate from a high-demand degree program and then stay in Pennsylvania after they graduate for the same number of years they received the aid.

In addition to tuition, the money could be used for student fees, campus housing, books, supplies, and other expenses.

Wolf’s administration has not outlined precise income guidelines, qualifying degree programs or even how much money might be available to an individual student.

While the scholarship plan has gotten support from top Democratic lawmakers, Saylor said Republicans have told Wolf the idea doesn't work for them.

For one thing, it takes tax money that goes to the horse-racing industry. That's not the state's money to take, Saylor said. Republicans have opposed other efforts to divert money from the hometown horse-racing industry in the past.

For another, Saylor said Wolf's plan leaves out Pennsylvania students who go to other colleges and universities in Pennsylvania — albeit private institutions.

If Wolf wants to discuss putting more money into grants through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, that is something lawmakers can discuss, Saylor said.

Enrollment at state system schools has dropped more than 20% since 2010, driven by steep declines of students from families whose annual incomes are below $110,000, according to system data.

“The problem, of course, is terrible for those students because post-secondary education is the key to the future,” said Greenstein, the state university system's chancellor.

But it's also terrible for the state, he said, which needs more college graduates to remain economically competitive with other states, especially as billions of dollars in federal infrastructure cash begins to flow.

“You don’t have the people with the skills to do the work,” Greenstein said. “So we have really got to address this challenge going forward and it’s across all industries. You see it in health care, education, agribusiness, supply chain, I.T. It's all over. And the only way to address it is to make higher education more affordable.”

Copyright 2022 90.5 WESA

Marc Levy | Associated Press