By Jack Wagner

Most people would agree that a college education is a necessary investment and, in many instances, a great investment. Unfortunately, for a growing number of Pennsylvania families and students, the cost of college is becoming an increasingly unaffordable investment.

As the father of a college student and as the state's independent fiscal watchdog, I am deeply concerned about how spiraling tuition costs will affect our workforce, further eroding Pennsylvania's economic competitiveness.

We owe it to our children and their parents to find solutions to making college more affordable, thus increasing accessibility.

Here is an idea: State government should help hard-working Pennsylvania families by giving them some hope, or, more precisely, a HOPE Scholarship program. HOPE, an acronym for Helping Our Pupils to Excel, would relieve some of the burden of higher education costs by offering considerable scholarship aid to academically successful high school students.

First, let's consider the facts that, I believe, show the need for a HOPE Scholarship program.

In Pennsylvania, based on tuition and fees, our institutions of higher education are the third most expensive in the nation for public two-year schools ($5,359 per year), fourth-most expensive for public four-year schools ($9,672 per year), and 11th-most expensive for private four-year schools ($27,272 per year).

Since 1999, tuition and fees for Pennsylvania residents attending public and private institutions in the state increased by 51 percent. From 1999 to 2006, tuition and fees increased by 67 percent at the four state-related universities (Lincoln, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Temple) and 44 percent at the 14 State System of Higher Education schools. These figures do not include the recent in-state increases of 5.5 percent at Penn State, 6.5 percent at Pittsburgh, and 2.75 percent at the state schools.

Over the same period, the consumer price index, or inflation rate, has risen by 27 percent. The cost of higher education has increased by a higher percentage than the inflation rate every single year over the last 11 years. In many years, the increase has been double the inflation rate. Clearly, higher education institutions must do a better job keeping future increases equal to or less than the inflation rate.

Higher education costs also have exceeded increases in annual median income. From 1999 to 2005, the annual median income in Pennsylvania increased only 19 percent, from $38,918 to $46,300.

This data provides substantial evidence to support development of new, innovative programs that would benefit Pennsylvania students and their families.

In four consecutive sessions during my tenure as a state senator from 1994 to 2005, I introduced a bill to establish a HOPE Scholarship program in Pennsylvania. This program would have paid higher education costs for Pennsylvania students who chose to attend a Pennsylvania school, provided they met such eligibility requirements as earning and maintaining a 3.0 grade-point average. If the student chose to attend a state-owned university, the program would pay his or her entire tuition. If the student chose to attend a state-related or private institution, the program would pay a portion of his or her tuition based on the average cost at the state-owned universities.

I modeled the legislation after Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program. Georgia uses proceeds from its state lottery to fund its HOPE Scholarship program. Georgia has provided more than $3.8 billion in HOPE scholarships to more than 1,060,000 students since the program's inception in 1993.

I strongly encourage the Pennsylvania General Assembly to revisit legislation to create a HOPE Scholarship program. The biggest obstacle, of course, is funding. It will be difficult for legislators to find a way to pay for a HOPE Scholarship program without either raising taxes or taking revenue from something else.

My suggestion is to pay for HOPE scholarships with excess slots casino revenue and any future expansion of gaming in Pennsylvania.

Critics scoffed at Gov. Rendell's estimates that Pennsylvania's slots casinos would generate enough profits to fund $1 billion a year for property-tax relief. Yet, early returns suggest that Gov. Rendell's estimate was on the low side, and that slots casinos may actually generate several hundred million dollars more than the governor's original prediction.

Let's put that money to good use and invest in our children. Young people under 18 years of age are 23 percent of our population; however, they are 100 percent of our future. Their future and Pennsylvania's future depends on our action to mitigate rising higher education costs and make it more affordable and accessible to all Pennsylvanians.