Pennsylvania Extends College Benefits to National Guard Family Members

To help with recruiting problems and ease the burden of higher education, Pennsylvania legislators expanded college benefits to family members of National Guard members.

With student debt rapidly approaching $1.6 trillion, the cost of higher education is a problem that lawmakers are trying to solve on both state and national levels. One method of tackling the issue of college affordability that legislators pursued is providing additional benefits to the families of service members.

Legislators in New York introduced legislation that would provide a cost-free education for Gold Star families at the State University of New York or the City University of New York. While the legislative process has yet to determine the bill's fate, families of National Guard members in Pennsylvania have been guaranteed access to educational funds.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1324 in law. Also known as the PA GI Bill, it's the first program of its kind in the nation, according to Wolf, and allows the spouses and children of National Guard members to attend college for free or at a reduced cost.

national guard pennsylvania free college
Sergeant Anderson of the Utah National Guard holds his kids as his daughter he hasn't seen gives him a curious look as he returns home for the holidays at the Salt Lake City International Airport on December 14, 2015, in Salt Lake City, Utah. On Monday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1324 into law, which allows spouses and children of National Guard members to access their education benefits. George Frey/Getty

Calling military families "unsung heroes," Wolf credited the bill with benefiting both service members' families and the economy of the entire state by strengthening its workforce.

"This legislation creates an incredible incentive for Guard members to reenlist because we need them. They are among the most highly trained soldiers in the world," State Representative Stephen Barrar, the bill's co-sponsor said during a press conference. "But, make no mistake, Guard families sacrifice just as much as their loved ones in the Guard."

State Senator Mike Regan, who co-sponsored a companion bill in the State Senate, said recruitment wasn't an issue. However, when it comes to service members who are thinking about starting a family and weighing the options of reenlisting, the state senator said the "great benefit" of education could tip the scales to get them to stay. Having "highly trained" soldiers and airmen remain the service, Regan said, will improve the strength of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

If the service member reenlists for six years, they can transfer their GI benefits to a spouse or a child for the cost of their education. These benefits include 10 semesters of tuition-free education at a Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency approved institution at the tuition rate set by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

The PA GI bill could benefit up to 8,000 military family members, according to Wolf.

Along with being an incentive for reenlisting, the legislators all expressed that the bill was a way to offer support to military families. Barrar, whose daughter is married to someone in the Navy, noted that the life of a military spouse isn't easy. It regularly includes taking on additional responsibilities and Regan noted that the people behind those in uniform are what keep the military running.

"It's so important that we recognize the service and the sacrifice of the spouse so our soldiers can go off and do what they do," Regan said.

Major General Tony Carrelli, Pennsylvania's adjutant general and head of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, applauded everyone involved for making the bill become a reality. To hammer home the significance of the moment, he said, at least a dozen adjutant generals from across the country have asked him for copies of legislation.

"I know this is going to be copied," Carrelli said.