The ever-escalating costs of postsecondary education are daunting. A baby born this year will have to pay about $438,000 over four years to attend a private college and $222,000 at an in-state public college, and then be saddled with enough debt to have to put off having a family. Two-year technical degrees can run as high as $40,000.
But the most expensive choice a person can make is to not get a postsecondary degree or certificate.
A recent Georgetown University study notes that: "More than 70 percent of workers only needed high school back in the 1970s. Now, more than 60 percent of jobs require postsecondary education and training."
Degree and certificate holders can earn up to $1 million more than high school graduates during their work lives. They also are more likely to keep jobs or find new ones, if they become unemployed.
Shamefully, Pennsylvania has an atrocious record of helping students, sitting at 48th in the nation when it comes to supporting their education. No wonder Pennsylvania students rank third in the nation in shouldering student debt - which averages $30,000 each.
Helping Pennsylvania's youth earn a postsecondary education can be made a lot easier with a savings account started at an early age, as proposed by Pennsylvania Treasurer Joseph Torsella. He wants to give $50 in a savings account to babies born in Pennsylvania. Parents and grandparents can add to the accounts over time, giving children a better shot at success as adults.
Start-up funds could be provided by the philanthropic community or, as in some states, from management fees on other accounts. The use of the money would be restricted to postsecondary education and sent directly to schools.
To avoid potential problems, however, Torsella should write firm guidelines for the types of institutions that can gain access to the money. There have been too many disastrous flameouts of for-profit colleges in recent years, which left students with broken promises and unbearable debt.
Torsella's Keystone Savings Accounts plan would complement the state's existing college savings program; known as a 529 plan, after its section in the tax code. Unfortunately, that plan is so ineffective only 4.5 percent of eligible families are using it.
By starting the savings accounts for children, Torsella would make postsecondary education a tangible goal, measured in dollars and cents. He cites research showing that children with such accounts are more likely to continue education after high school than those without a plan. Those are good odds and Pennsylvania's children are well worth it.
Not all the details of Torsella's plan have been hammered out, but his promises of transparency will be the early test of his commitment.
Such a program should be constructed with the public fully able to evaluate it, and hold Torsella to a high standard, because the stakes are so high. A successful college savings plan will help more of Pennsylvania's children achieve their dreams.