Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella met with the LNP Editorial Board on Thursday to discuss initiatives that he hopes will help boost both college and retirement savings. In February, Torsella and the state Treasury launched a program dubbed Keystone Scholars, which would give infants $100 scholarship grants at birth if their parents register. The $100 would be managed by the PA 529 College Savings Program under the state Treasury; the scholarship grants would grow through investment. The Keystone Scholars program is being piloted in Delaware, Elk, Indiana, Luzerne, Mifflin and Westmoreland counties, where an expected 30,000 infants born in 2018 and 2019 will receive the scholarship grants if their parents register. Several private philanthropies and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency are funding the pilot program.
Tuesday will be Decision Day for many high school seniors in Lancaster County and across the country.
That marks the deadline set by colleges for accepted students to confirm whether they’ll be attending. For most students and their families, it’s not just a matter of which college offers the best education, or where the college is located, or which has the most beautiful or well-appointed campus.
The deciding factor — or at least one of the deciding factors — may be which college offered the best financial aid package, and which college’s tuition, room, board and fees will be the most manageable.
Money has to be part of the calculus now because college debt in the United States is no trifling matter. Depending on which report you favor, Pennsylvania ranks either first or second in the nation among states for college debt.
LendEDU puts Pennsylvania in the No. 1 spot — a truly dubious honor. It says the average debt per borrower in this state was $35,185 in 2016. It also said that 69 percent of Pennsylvanians graduate with debt.
According to the Keystone Research Center, tuition and fees in Pennsylvania have increased 66 percent in the last 15 years, and median student loan debt is up 27 percent since 2000.
As a consequence, students are graduating from four-year colleges with crushing debt loads that make it far more difficult for them to get home mortgages, start businesses and take jobs that might yield long-term career rewards but lower pay in the short term.
Technical education is an excellent alternative to a four-year liberal arts education — especially as Pennsylvania companies are eagerly seeking highly skilled workers — but technical colleges aren’t free, either.
Which is why we think the Keystone Scholars initiative holds promise.
Whether a child is destined for Millersville University or Elizabethtown College or Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, a Keystone Scholars grant would set that child on his or her path.
Torsella told the LNP Editorial Board that the starter deposit money could be used until the child turns 29 for expenses directly related to postsecondary education, which would include vocational and technical training. Parents who wanted to add to it would open a 529 savings account, a state-administered, tax-advantaged savings plan.
(A side note: Torsella suggested that we need a more inclusive term than “college” for postsecondary education and training, and we agree. The British call it “tertiary education,” which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. “Further education” is probably too vague. How about “essential education,” given that getting a diploma after high school dramatically impacts a person’s lifetime earnings? If you have a snappier suggestion, please send it to us in a letter to the editor.)
We’ll be watching to see how the Keystone Scholars pilot pans out. Torsella compared the starter deposits to the savings bonds he used to receive from family members growing up. They were the “world’s worst gift to a kid,” he joked, but they helped to set the expectation that college would be part of his future.
We got those savings bonds, too, but we know that not everyone did or does. Helping to raise the expectations of children across Pennsylvania strikes us as a good idea for the commonwealth, which will benefit if its young residents are prepared for careers that will afford them healthy incomes.
Even if families can only contribute small amounts to their children’s 529 savings accounts over the years, the seed money may be enough for expectations to take root.
If the Keystone Scholars program is to become a statewide reality, however, it will require the passage of Senate Bill 1130 or House Bill 2248. Republican Sen. John Gordner, of northeastern Pennsylvania, and Republican Rep. Duane Milne, who represents Chester County, are leading those legislative efforts.
We’d urge the members of the Lancaster County delegation to lend these bills support, and readers to encourage their lawmakers to do so.
Torsella said the money for a statewide Keystone Scholars program will be generated by investment earnings on a guaranteed savings program established by the state Treasury — not from the commonwealth’s general fund budget.
None of the other states — such as Maine and Nevada — that have established universal children’s savings accounts use state funds, either.
A report on such accounts by The Pew Charitable Trusts cited research done by William Elliott III, an associate professor at the University of Kansas. Elliott found that children “who have even small savings accounts for college are seven times more likely to attend and graduate from college than those who have no savings accounts.”
That’s an impressive finding. We hope Pennsylvania parents and lawmakers are impressed, too.