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That it’s not your granddad’s job market anymore has long been apparent. The days when you could feed your family with the sweat of your brow alone vanished decades ago.

In Pennsylvania today, fully 60% of the jobs available require some kind of degree, certification or licensure. But only 47% of available workers have these credentials. Clearly, more needs to be done to prepare workers for the kinds of jobs that can help them move forward with their lives and careers.

The most obvious way to do that would be to increase funding for the state’s public colleges and universities, along with its community colleges. Yet funding for these institutions has been tumbling, particularly in the years since the Great Recession.

A virtual briefing last week by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center highlighted just how much funding has cratered. Across all 50 states from 2008 to 2019, Pennsylvania has endured the ninth-worst drop in per-student spending in higher education, and the sixth-worst drop overall. In the same period, tuition increased by 20% for students. The amount spent on the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is only 38% of what it was in 1984 relative to the gross state product.

Because of this, students are deterred from enrolling, especially if they are from low-income families, and diversity in higher education is reduced. Marc Stier, the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, called it “embarrassing” and “simply horrifying” for Pennsylvanians.

The Wolf administration recognizes the financial hurdles many students in Pennsylvania are confronting, and unveiled a proposal last week for the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program. It would help full-time undergraduate students enrolled at the 14 PASSHE campuses, which includes California University of Pennsylvania. To qualify, students would have to come from households where the income is less than $104,800 annually. The scholarship would cover the costs of fees and tuition that are not be covered by Pell or state grants. In exchange, students would have to live in Pennsylvania after they graduate for the same number of years they received the scholarship. If they would leave, it would be converted to a low-interest loan.

Named for the pioneering journalist who hailed from Armstrong County, the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program would be funded by taking close to $200 million annually in slot machine revenue that now goes to the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund. The fund has generated $3 billion over the last 16 years, and Gov. Tom Wolf contends that most of that money goes into the pockets of owners who live in other countries or states. The governor also believes the state shouldn’t have to subsidize this industry in a free-market economy.

It’s a compelling argument. Considering the dividends that come to communities as its members attain more education, that seems to be a more sound investment.

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