Pennsylvania could become first state to offer free tuition to National Guard spouses and kids

By: - February 27, 2019 6:55 pm

Gov. Wolf is joined by National Guard Members at Fort Indiantown Gap (Capital-Star photo).

Under a plan backed by Gov. Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania National Guard members who re-enlist would be rewarded with free tuition for their families.

If a service member agrees to serve for six additional years, the state would cover 10 semesters of tuition at most higher-education institutions in the commonwealth for a spouse or child. That assistance could be used by one person or split between several.

Wolf’s proposed 2018-19 budget provides $2.7 million for the PA National Guard Military Family Education Program, which would be established by legislation in the General Assembly. Tuition assistance would be capped at just under $4,000 per semester, the rate set by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

The governor touted the proposal Wednesday at Fort Indiantown Gap alongside state lawmakers from both major parties and Pa. National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Tony Carrelli.

Carrelli told the Capital-Star the Guard’s recruiting program has been “fairly solid,” in part, because of an existing program that pays for service members’ higher-education. The problem is keeping those members in for longer periods of time.

“It’s not that we’re not able to recruit people, but we’re not able to keep the people we have,” Carrelli said.

People who serve in the National Guard respond to natural disasters and can be deployed overseas, but they also work in civilian jobs. Carrelli said he’s been told by service members they can make more money in that workforce to pay for things like their kids’ education.

“Life is tough, and we eat up a lot of their time,” he said. “They’re giving up pay to serve.”

Pay and bonuses are controlled by the feds, but helping Guard families is something the state can do, Carrelli added.

Lawmakers in the state House and Senate need to approve the program. Legislation has yet to be introduced.

But according to Wolf’s office, the benefit would be available to members who complete an “initial military term” then agree to serve for another six years. The administration estimates that roughly 400 students would receive grants beginning in fall 2020.

“From there, we estimate a 3 percent increase in student enrollment until reaching the peak during the fifth year of the program, peaking at approximately 12 to 13 percent,” a Wolf spokesperson said via email.

Senators Mike Regan, R-Cumberland, and Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, plan to introduce legislation in that chamber, while Reps. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware, and Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, will offer a companion bill in the House.

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.