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In 1996, Pennsylvania established the National Guard Educational Assistance Program. This program provides men and women a free college education in exchange for a six-year enlistment in the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Since then, over 50,000 Army and Air Guard members — nearly 2,500 per year — have taken advantage of this program. In return, the Pennsylvania National Guard has remained strong, both at home and abroad. Pennsylvania’s program was the first in the nation and has been replicated across the country.

Knowing that the military is not just an individual commitment but a family commitment, I am pleased to be working with my colleagues in the Senate and House and the administration to take the next step — providing guard members who re-enlist with a free college education for a spouse or child. The PA GI Bill will enable men and women in our National Guard to earn educational benefits for their spouse and/or children by committing to a second enlistment of six years. Overall, the program will provide for ten semesters or five years equivalent at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education tuition rate.

This proposal, which will be administered by PHEAA in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, is aimed at increasing the retention rates in the Pennsylvania National Guard and attracting transitioning military service members to the Commonwealth.

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It will strengthen our readiness and assist in maintaining the capabilities needed to remain the second largest National Guard in the nation. Finally, it will support our National Guard families, who are called on to sacrifice when their spouse or parent is training or deployed.

While guard enlistment rates are steady, guard re-enlistment numbers are starting to drop off. Therefore, it is important for us to look at additional incentives. When an individual originally enlists in the guard, they are typically graduating high school and are single, making a free college education very appealing. However, when a guard member completes their initial six-year enlistment, they are likely to have started a family and a career. As such, an educational assistance program for spouses and children could encourage the guard member to re-up for another six years.

Guard members and their families are located in every community across our Commonwealth. They have been deployed to every major engagement in our nation’s history. In fact, the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Division is the oldest and the largest in the nation, and has been deployed to more places at home and around the world than any other National Guard unit. Its roots can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin in 1747.

As chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee, I want our guard to be as strong as possible. In order for us to maintain a robust National Guard over the next several decades, it is important that we retain these citizen soldiers beyond their first enlistment. The PA GI Bill will help in this cause, and they deserve it.

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Sen. Mike Regan represents Pennsylvania’s 31st Senatorial District covering parts of Cumberland and York Counties.

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