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A new state program has been designed to help parents in Pennsylvania who have a baby or adopt next year to save toward their child’s college fund.
The Keystone Scholars Program establishes a $100 scholarship grant for higher education expenses.
Every baby born or adopted in Pennsylvania would receive a Keystone Scholarship account and a starter deposit at birth of $100 in the state’s 529 Guaranteed Savings Plan. The money would be invested and grow over time.
Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella, who created the Keystone Scholars Program, said he hopes the initiative encourages families to start saving earlier for educational expenses. The initiative comes as WalletHub ranks Pennsylvania third on a list of 10 states most impacted by student debt.
“We as a state have a high level of student debt and in general the cost of higher education has gone through the roof while average family incomes have barely budged over three decades,” Torsella said during a meeting with the Tribune editorial board.
“If a family saves $25 a month by the time that kid is college-aged he or she will have more than $10,000. Every dollar that is saved and invested is a dollar that doesn’t have to be borrowed and that’s huge.”
The money can be used for trade schools, vocational programs, colleges and universities in or outside of Pennsylvania. The program begins on Jan. 1, 2019, and families have until the child turns 29 years old to use the funds.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed the universal college savings program into law recently as part of the state budget.
The bipartisan legislation was co-sponsored by state Sen. John Gordner, state Sen. Vince Hughes and state Rep. Duane Milne.
“Part of it is about the message that we are sending and the expectations that we have — it’s that every kid born in this state should have a bright future in whatever direction his or her talents takes them and that we believe in them,” Torsella said.
He said children who had higher education savings at birth are three times more likely to enroll in an educational or training program after high school.
Torsella said only 7.9 percent of the commonwealth’s eligible population use 529 education savings accounts. He hopes that the Keystone Scholars program will increase participation.
“There is a common misconception that [a 529 account] is only for state schools or four year schools — neither of those things are true. They are for any valid post-secondary education,” Torsella stressed.
The Keystone Scholars program is funded by an investment surplus from the Treasury’s Guaranteed Savings Program.
Torsella is hopeful that the new initiative will help increase the number of Pennsylvania college graduates. He highlighted the connection between more college grads and the state’s economy. He noted that 95 percent of the jobs created since the Great Recession require some form of post-secondary education.
Torsella launched a pilot program in six counties — Delaware, Elk, Luzerne, Indiana, Mifflin and Westmoreland.
Next year, Pennsylvania will become the largest state to implement a children’s savings account program, joining Nevada, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maine in offering educational saving plans.
Torsella also addressed how the Treasury could help people who don’t have a means of saving for retirement.
“There are 2.1 million working Pennsylvanians who don’t have a method of saving where they work, and the problem with that is although it is theoretically possible for them to save on their own, as a practical matter, it’s really hard,” he explained.
To that end, Torsella suggests the Treasury Department launch an auto-enrollment program whereby employers would place a certain percentage of workers’ wages in a portal IRA (individual retirement account). Workers could opt out of the program.
“I think it’s more ambitious but if we don’t do it there’s a generation of folks whose retirement looks a lot less secure than they deserve it to look and there’s economic consequences to the state,” Torsella said.
In January, the Treasury released an independent study that determined that the commonwealth spent an estimated $702 million on additional public assistance costs and lost an estimated $70 million in state tax revenue in 2015 due to insufficient retirement savings by Pennsylvania residents.
The study said those amounts are projected to grow to $1.1 billion in added annual public assistance costs and $106 million in annual lost revenue in 2030, for cumulative totals of $14.3 billion in increased assistance costs and $1.4 billion in lost revenue from 2015 to 2030.