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Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers roll out higher ed plan built around grants and tuition discounts

HARRISBURG — Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania on Wednesday rolled out a counterproposal to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s plan to boost college enrollment in Pennsylvania, pledging help for both in-state and out-of-state students who enroll in degree programs for high-priority disciplines, such as teaching and nursing.

The proposal, which revolves around grants and tuition discounts, is backed by Republican leadership in the GOP-controlled Senate, as well as in the House, where Democrat maintain control. Republicans also signaled that key elements of Shapiro's higher education plan rolled out earlier this year are essentially dead in the Legislature.

Republicans view their proposal as an effort to counter the demographic trend of a shrinking workforce in Pennsylvania, declining enrollments in higher education institutions and shortages in high-need disciplines that are pitting states against each other to compete for those workers.

“How we get kids, not only to be educated here, but get them to stay here, we've got to find a way to bring that all together, because we’re going to have some severe workforce gaps,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, said in an interview. “We already have them. They’re just going to grow larger, especially as the baby boomers are all retiring and aging out. And we hear constantly now from employers who are really ringing alarm bells.”

Enrollments have been falling for years at Pennsylvania’s state-owned university system, Penn State’s satellite campuses and the state’s 15 community colleges.

This year’s state government spending of $2 billion on higher education is virtually the same as it was 16 years ago, and Pennsylvania ranks at the bottom among states in the level of higher education aid, size of student debt and affordability of its colleges by just about every measurement there is.

The Republican plan comes after years of debates around Democrats pushing to send more money to higher education institutions, including former Gov. Tom Wolf's 2020 proposal for a $200 million college-scholarship program. Republicans have balked at increasing aid amid rising tuition and talked instead about redirecting aid from institutions to student grants.

Under the GOP plan, one new program would provide grants of $5,000 a year to Pennsylvania students who go to school in Pennsylvania. Another new program would extend the in-state tuition discount at Pennsylvania’s state-owned university system to out-of-state students who maintain a grade-point-average of at least 2.5.

To be eligible, those students must enroll in a degree program for a high-priority discipline. After graduating, they would have to remain in Pennsylvania for 15 months for every year they accepted a grant.

Republicans also want to expand an existing $2,500 annual grant program for in-state students by relaxing the grade-point-average requirement and boosting family income eligibility.

They declined to put a price tag on the program. Martin mentioned nursing, teaching, criminal justice sector and large-animal veterinarians as examples of workforce shortages, but said lawmakers would settle on a way to decide which disciplines are considered high priorities.

The plan does not envision ending aid to institutions.

One element similar to Shapiro's plan is a proposal to create a new process around approving hundreds of millions of dollars in annual state aid to three major state-related universities — Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University.

The schools would be rewarded for meeting certain performance incentives, such as graduation rates and students enrolled in particularly high-need degree programs. But an institution wouldn't necessarily get more aid every year.

In a statement, Shapiro’s office said it welcomed the signal that Republicans agree with Shapiro that doing nothing to fix the state’s higher education system is “not an option.”

“We’re encouraged to hear Senate Republican leadership agree we need to take action to make our higher education system more competitive, create more opportunity for students and families, and address Pennsylvania’s workforce needs,” Shapiro’s office said.

However, top Republicans also suggested that key elements of Shapiro’s higher education plan are essentially dead.

That included uniting the 10 state-owned universities — including 14 campuses — and 15 independent community colleges under a governance system and cutting tuition and fees at state-owned universities to no more than $1,000 a semester for Pennsylvania students whose household income is below $70,000.

The chancellor of Pennsylvania's state-owned university system, Dan Greenstein, has warned for years that Pennsylvania needs to greatly increase the number of adults with degrees for its economy to meet demand and keep pace with other states.

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