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New plan offers college aid in exchange for Pennsylvania residency

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(The Center Square) — As the public awaits more details of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s higher education reform plans, Republican legislators offer some ideas of their own.

During a Wednesday press conference, a gaggle of House and Senate leaders pushed for the creation of a grant program that offers scholarships to students who commit to stay in Pennsylvania. They also want to launch a similar deal for out-of-state students to get in-state tuition if they put down roots in the commonwealth.

“We need to find a way for how to grow this state and how to draw people in,” Sen. Scott Martin, R-Strasburg, said. “We need to encourage more students to learn here, put down roots here, work here, and grow here.”

The Grow PA plan would offer scholarships to students in high-priority fields of study at any Pennsylvania university, including career and technical schools. Out-of-state students who attend a state-owned school would qualify for a merit scholarship program.

Scholarships would be up to $5,000 and students would agree to work in Pennsylvania for 15 months; a student with a four-year scholarship would thus stay in Pennsylvania for five years after graduation.

“There needs to be a restoration of trust amongst all of Pennsylvania in ensuring that these investments — or any investments we make in post-secondary education — actually are providing what we need for our students and our workforce,” Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said.

He argued that reducing college costs falls on colleges and the government alike, and more remains to be done.

“It will be a lot of work, a lot of conversations still need to take place,” he said. “Today, we’re laying the groundwork and foundation for some real accomplishments in this upcoming session.”

Republican legislators have been dismayed at the lack of information from the governor’s office on his reform proposal and were surprised to learn during budget hearings that Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein had not been directly involved.

“The solution that (Shapiro) has brought forward is really not a solution and it doesn’t have a lot of viability,” said Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana. “So we have to come forward with our ideas, our proposals, our initiatives. This isn’t set in stone … but we have to engage in the conversation in a different level.”

Martin was optimistic about getting bipartisan support for their reforms, and Pittman suggested a potential funding source: skill games, the semi-regulated gambling machines in bars and gas stations across Pennsylvania.

“I think that’s actually a source of revenue that we could explore,” he said. “Perhaps a portion of whatever could come out of that could be used to help further develop a higher education strategy.”

In 2022, former Gov. Tom Wolf proposed his own $200 million program, the Nellie Bly Scholarship, that would have been funded through pandemic stimulus and the state’s Racehorse Development Fund.

Like the Grow PA proposal, students in high-priority fields who attend state-run universities or community colleges would then agree to stay in Pennsylvania for as many years as they received the benefit.