“Grow PA” Offers a Higher-Ed Reform Model for the Nation

Pending Pennsylvania legislation would address college affordability, labor shortages, and university accountability in one package.

Too often, lawmakers want to fix higher education by blindly throwing money at the problem. From President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel large amounts of student-loan debt to Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s “Blueprint for Higher Education” (which caps in-state tuition at $1,000 per semester), spendthrift politicians have long played fast and loose with taxpayer dollars.

However, a unique education-reform plan in Pennsylvania, called “Grow PA,” stands out from the traditional tax-and-spend approach, helping the state’s taxpayer dollars work twice as hard to fund students, not institutions.

Under this proposed plan, scholarship grants would not only make college more affordable for students studying in high-demand fields but would also incentivize students to stay and work in Pennsylvania upon graduation.

Grow PA would subsidize qualifying students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields. Like California, Illinois, and New York, Pennsylvania suffers from a well-documented outmigration problem, whereby more people move out of the state than in. In 13 of the previous 14 years, Pennsylvania experienced a net loss in population. Moreover, Pennsylvania ranks eighth nationally in domestic outmigration.

This population decline leaves industries, ranging from nursing to construction, understaffed. For example, by 2026, Pennsylvania could face a shortage of 278,000 nursing support professionals, according to one estimate. Grow PA is a strategic response to these current and future employment gaps.

There isn’t a silver bullet to address the state’s brain-drain problems. A survey from the Commonwealth Foundation found that more than half of 30-year-olds said they or someone they know has considered leaving Pennsylvania due to an expensive cost of living, high taxes, and limited work opportunities. The Grow PA plan would not address all these issues, but it would attract more students to come and stay in Pennsylvania upon graduation.

Grow PA’s approach is to boost aid for high-growth career pathways, thus attracting students to certifications and degrees that offer genuine employment opportunities. The program would subsidize qualifying students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields—such as health care, energy, education, and law enforcement—at Pennsylvania technical schools, community colleges, and four-year universities. In return, these students would commit to remaining in Pennsylvania for at least five years after graduation and working in their professional fields.

Both in-state and out-of-state students can qualify for these scholarships. If grant-receiving students choose to leave the Keystone State upon graduation, their grants convert into loans, a stipulation that safeguards the taxpayer.

Grow PA also builds upon successful Pennsylvania grant programs, leveraging what already works well in the state. The college plan expands the PA Ready to Succeed Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to high-achieving students seeking postsecondary education, as well as the PA Targeted Industry Program, which supports students in several certificate programs in high-growth industries (e.g., energy, health care, and agriculture). Both programs have been a part of Pennsylvania’s higher-education ecosystem for years, providing millions of dollars to students who not only demonstrate need and ability but who also will likely become integral components of our state’s economy.

The Grow PA plan presents an innovative solution to the problems of college affordability, labor shortages, and university accountability.The Grow PA plan also emphasizes institutional responsibility. The proposal conditions funding of state-related universities on their ability to meet new performance standards derived from critical factors such as graduation rates, employment rates, and salaries. The program would compel institutions to develop more competitive programs to attract students and use student-aid dollars more intentionally.

Championed by Senator Scott Martin and other Republican leaders, this novel approach to higher-education funding recently passed the Pennsylvania Senate. However, the bill’s fate remains uncertain in the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Pennsylvania Democrats will likely favor Shapiro’s vague yet expensive blueprint instead.

Despite an uncertain future, the Grow PA plan presents an innovative solution to the problems of college affordability, labor shortages, and university accountability. Reformers in other states should take note.

Elizabeth Stelle is director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.