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Higher ed reform plan meant to “grow PA” workforce

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s declining working age population foreshadows trouble ahead.

Legislative Republicans, however, say they’ve developed a package of education bills to keep the state’s youth within its borders and boost the economy.

The program, called GrowPA, was announced earlier this month as a way to deal with workforce shortages, high college costs and the struggle of lagging behind other states.

“We are facing a series of connected challenges: a struggling workforce, rising education costs, declining enrollments in many of our institutions — all perpetrated by some serious demographic issues,” Sen. Dave Argall, R-Mahanoy City, said during a Senate Education Committee hearing on Monday.

The legislative package proposes a scholarship to study in-demand fields, give aid to out-of-state students to attend college in Pennsylvania, expand some existing programs and boost dual-enrollment programs, among others. Career and technical education would also see “historic investments,” Republicans argued.

Nathan Hench, senior vice president for public affairs of PHEEA, the state agency for financial aid, argued that legislators could improve outcomes with more funding for students. He singled out the Ready to Succeed scholarship, which offers up to $2,500 for full-time students.

“More than 72% of Ready-to-Succeed scholarship recipients reported that their reward was a significant factor in their ability to stay in school,” Hench said. “There are avenues for expanding its reach, such as broadening the income limit to encompass more middle-income families, raising the maximum award, and refining the GPA requirement.”

Legislators were optimistic about the potential for reform. Republicans in the House and Senate have argued that they want to be a partner and not an ATM for colleges across the commonwealth. They were “sympathetic but cautious” of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s higher ed plans, whose administration has been slow to offer details on what those changes would be.

“This package sends a powerful message to young people: If you’re willing to work hard and earn your education for a career in high-demand industries here in Pennsylvania, then we’re willing to invest to keep you here,” Sen. Scott Martin, R-Strasburg, said.

Aaron Riggleman, manager of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, called the legislative push a crucial step to tackle the state’s labor problems.

“When we talk about workforce challenges, the trades are always number one on our list,” he said. “Some of our best technical schools in Pennsylvania are bursting at their seams. They’re seeing record enrollment and, in fact, they’re turning people away because they simply can’t meet the demand.”

Riggleman also touched on something officials from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education have drawn attention to: the need to reskill current workers for their next jobs.

The familiar qualms over the commonwealth’s regulatory system popped up, too.

“All of us this needs to be done in the landscape of we need to improve our overall business climate here,” Riggleman said.