Have you heard of Pennsylvania Promise? If you haven’t, I’m not surprised. I hadn’t until a student brought it to my attention this past week. Pennsylvania Promise would provide free tuition to Pa. high school graduates, but it’s not gaining much momentum in Harrisburg.

According to a recent report by John Deleno of KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Promise is the brainchild of two state think tanks, the Keystone Research Center and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy center. The idea is to offset the high cost of college in our state.

Curious, I went to the Budget and Policy Center website to read the report for myself. It proposes covering “two years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate enrolled full-time at one of the Commonwealth’s 14 public community colleges.” It also proposes to “cover four years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate with a family income less than or equal to $110,000 per year accepted into one of the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education.” In addition, the program would offer four years of income-based grants to students attending a state-related university such as Pitt or Penn State. It would also “finance the expansion of grant assistance to adults seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials, as well as college credit.”

These are pretty lofty goals that come with a pretty lofty price tag: $1.16 billion dollars. Still, the Center cited the pressing need for a reinvestment in education beyond high school – reinvestment because the state has cut funding to higher education in the past 35 years resulting in some staggering statistics.

Pennsylvania is ranked worst in the nation when it comes to higher education because of the high student debt at graduation and high tuition fees. We rank 40th in the nation in adults ages 25-65 with a degree beyond high school. The statistic that really caught my attention was this: “In over half of Pennsylvania counties (35), the share of adults with more than a high-school degree is lower than in any of the 50 states (i.e., lower than West Virginia’s 48.1 percent).” That’s right – we’re worse than West Virginia.

Anyone who reads these statistics can see where this is headed. We are not producing the high skilled workers the 21st Century needs. In fact, if things continue as they are, we are going to continue to fall behind and industries who need a skilled workforce are going to look elsewhere.

So where can the funding come from? The report cites a number of proposals including a personal income tax rate increase of one point; a tax proposal that would cut the personal income tax rate on wages and interest while increasing taxes on wealth; a severance tax similar to the one in West Virginia; and a .054 percent flat tax on financial wealth. According to the report, the flat tax, which is on net worth, would cost someone who made a million dollars about $540 dollars a year.

That is probably why you haven’t heard about it. Even though this would help Pennsylvania and make it more attractive to business investment, I seriously doubt our state legislature looks at it that way.

Mention a tax increase of any kind and, well, it’s dead in the water because too many of our legislators think of the now and not the future. They just want to kick the can down the road and campaign on how they didn’t raise taxes while our state crumbles around us.

I’m not big on taxes myself, but fully understand how they work. The snowplow going up and down my road illustrates how my tax dollars work. So do the local police and fire departments, water systems, sewage systems, infrastructure creation and repair, children getting a decent meal and education, senior citizens getting the help they need, and so on.

It seems to me investing in a 21st Century workforce would also illustrate how tax dollars can be used to make things better for all of us.

The final paragraph on the website puts it this way: “After running the numbers, the question that emerges is ‘what are we waiting for?’ Anyone who cares about Pennsylvania, particularly those parts of the state underserved by affordable, accessible higher education – most of the state outside the Philadelphia metro area and parts of the Pittsburgh metro area – should be leading the charge for Pennsylvania to enact the Pennsylvania Promise.”

Read the report for yourself at www.pennbpc.org.

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