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For an elected official, no statement seems more banal than to declare that “the children are our future,” but there’s a reason why that comment is made so often. They are. They’re the reason why we work to make sure that education is still affordable and that good-paying jobs exist when it’s their turn to take their place in the world.
But for a long time now, we policymakers have tolerated the status quo in a state that desperately needs some change. We’ve let the cost of higher education explode, even as the need for some form of it has risen dramatically. We’ve let our graduates become the most debt-burdened in the country.
So here’s another obvious statement: We — all of us — need to do better.
In June, we began that process when, thanks to a bipartisan coalition, the Keystone Scholars program became law. This will give every child born in this state a starter deposit of $100 at birth to use for any kind of higher education they need.
Research from the Center for Social Development shows that a child with a higher education savings account at birth is three times more likely to pursue training or education after high school — whether it’s used for trade school or medical school — and four times more likely to graduate. The kids who obtain a degree will earn, on average, up to $1 million more over their lifetimes.
But the idea is so much larger than that. Keystone Scholars is about changing expectations, by sending a message that we believe in every single child and that there is a future we’re ready to prepare them for from their very first days.
Some folks would argue that $100 is not enough to pay for higher education. I couldn’t agree more. Keystone Scholars is designed to help families find the easiest path to save as early as possible, which will be the real key to building the savings needed for post-secondary education. If a family starts with the $100 and puts just $25 a month into their own 529 account, by the time their child reaches college age they’ll have more than $10,000 set aside.
Some have also noted that the government shouldn’t be pushing every child into a four-year university experience. Again, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why Keystone Scholars funds — and every penny a family saves beyond that in a PA 529 account — can be used for any qualified higher education expense. That includes tuition or books at a four-year university or expenses and tuition for trade or career school or community college.
Finally, the Keystone Scholars program doesn’t use any taxpayer money. The program is using surplus dollars from our Guaranteed Savings Program and private dollars raised for this purpose, and we expect to raise more. At no point does the program have access to general fund dollars.
I’ll be the first to tell you that Keystone Scholars won’t solve the cost of higher education on its own. It’s just one piece of the solution. We have to get our institutions to keep tuition costs in line, and we have to be willing to increase our state investment in post-secondary education. Our budgets reflect our priorities, and when we as a state are spending more on prisons than we are on higher education, we have a problem.
We can choose to make Keystone Scholars a part of an ambitious rethinking in how we’re preparing our kids for the future. We can show them that a better world is possible, and that we believe in them enough to try.
Joe Torsella is Pennsylvania state treasurer.