Treasurer Torsella Unveils Proposal for “PA Skills Compact”

Torsella’s plan would provide tuition-free associates degrees, certification programs to raise postsecondary attainment, meet future employers’ needs

Harrisburg, PA - Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella today unveiled the “Pennsylvania Skills Compact,” his plan to provide up to two years of tuition-free training for all Pennsylvanians towards associate’s degrees, technical certificates or occupational credentialing.

“Whether young or old, no Pennsylvanian’s bank balance should keep them from getting the education they need to move their families—and our Commonwealth—ahead. Pennsylvanians have been devastated by the economic effects of COVID-19, but there were serious cracks in the foundation for a long time. We need immediate help for those out of work and those barely hanging on. But even while we do that, we need to start acting on a long-term recovery plan that gives all Pennsylvanian a fair shot at success. The Pennsylvania Skills Compact can be a big piece of that plan. For too long, we’ve seen too many talented Pennsylvanians burdened by a mountain of debt, or simply priced out of the education and training that will be the key to recovery—for them and for our state.”

Pennsylvania State Treasurer and oversees the State’s 529 college and career savings plan and chairs the Pennsylvania Tuition Advisory Board, Joe Torsella

"It’s no secret that our state finances are under unique strain right now. But we simply will not have a lasting improvement of our state finances without a lasting improvement in the finances of our families. Even as we work to solve the unprecedented budget issues posed by the pandemic in the near term, we need to find bolder solutions to our longer-term challenges. The Pennsylvanians we represent need and expect us to work on both. They can’t wait, and neither should we,” said Torsella. “In the important conversation around making Pennsylvania higher education accessible and affordable to all, we need more—not fewer—creative ideas. In the coming weeks and months, I intend to engage in a bipartisan dialogue with stakeholders, legislators, and policymakers across the Commonwealth around this proposal, and hope this idea will help spark the innovation and bold thinking we need."

Pennsylvania State Treasurer, Joe Torsella

Modeled after a similar program in Tennessee, at least 15 states have such a program, including Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

The PA Skills Compact is meant to address the existing skills gap, provide a fair shot to both new and returning students regardless of means, boost postsecondary attainment, and expedite Pennsylvania’s economic recovery.

“The PA Skills Compact proposed by Treasurer Torsella is a credible solution to Pennsylvania’s higher education affordability crisis. Because of chronic disinvestment, our Commonwealth now ranks nearly last in higher education affordability in the United States and has one of the highest levels of debt per student in the nation. Tragically, every year community colleges are forced to disenroll thousands of students across the state. These students enroll in classes, apply for financial aid and scholarships, and show up to learn – only to find they cannot afford tuition. Treasurer Torsella’s proposed plan gives these students – many of whom are low-income or first-generation college students – an avenue to a higher education degree or credential and a pathway to a local, in-demand, family-sustaining career."

President & CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, Elizabeth A. Bolden

Mass layoffs as a result of COVID-19 mitigation efforts have resulted in record high unemployment, and have hit workers without postsecondary attainment harder. It is estimated that up to 42 percent of those layoffs are permanent. This will force millions of Pennsylvanians to change career course, seek additional training, or both, to meet the needs of a post-COVID-19 job market.

The PA Skills Compact would be a last-dollar program, meaning students must complete the FAFSA and use existing federal aid and state grants before the program kicks in to cover the remainder of tuition and mandatory fees. Any Pennsylvania resident could enroll in the program and attend an eligible institution in the Commonwealth, including community colleges, specialized technical schools, and four-year institutions that offer 2-year degrees.

The Skills Compact is designed to be a cost-effective approach, potentially pulling from federal recovery, economic aid, and workforce development dollars to help Pennsylvanians reach their long-term goals, and strengthen Pennsylvania’s workforce. An October 2019 analysis from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that the total program would cost no more than $84 million in the first year, depending on the final program design, while still accounting for an estimated 20 percent increase in student enrollment and assuming no federal aid. Depending on programmatic details, it could be structured to minimize impact on the state General Fund. Arkansas, for example, paid for its program by repurposing existing streams of federal training dollars.

A similar program was rolled out in Tennessee in 2015, under then Governor Bill Haslam, called Tennessee Promise, covering community college costs for high school graduates. The first cohort of Tennessee Promise students has significantly higher overall rates of success in completing their education than students who did not participate in the program. In 2018-19, Tennessee also ranked second for FAFSA completion, 20 percent higher than national average, securing millions in extra federal dollars for postsecondary education.

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