COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – An ambitious bill promises an investment in higher education to help tackle population decline and workforce shortages in Ohio.

Monday, flanked by nine presidents from many of the state’s largest colleges and universities State Rep. Jon Cross (R-Kenton) announced the Graduate and Retain Ohio’s Workforce (GROW) Act. He called it an investment in Ohio’s future economy.

“We’re not a flyover state, we’re a ‘fly-to state.’ We’re a ‘stay here state,’” Cross said.

He laid out the GROW Act in 5 steps:

Codify Ohio Revised Code: The first step Cross described was technical in nature. The bill would modify the Ohio Revised Code to add the Chancellor of Higher Education, or an appointed representative, to the Ohio Governor’s Workforce Development Board.

Incentivize 4-Year Degrees: Next, the legislation proposes using college opportunity grants to encourage students earning associate’s degrees at community colleges to advance their education at a four-year college or university.

Business Partnerships: Participating businesses could qualify for a 30-percent tax credit if they partner with colleges and universities to offer internships, co-ops and apprenticeship opportunities.

Forgivable Loans for Out-of-State Students: Out-of-state students pursuing STEM fields, who are achieving high marks in high school, could apply for a $25,000 4-year merit-based loan. After graduation, up to 33 percent of the loan’s value would be forgiven if the student stays in Ohio. He/she could qualify for 50-percent loan forgiveness after two years in state and 100-percent loan forgiveness if they stay for three years. Cross proposed 100 such annual loans to be awarded, but said he’d be open to amending the figure as the bill takes shape in the legislature.

Income Tax Break: Among the most ambitious provisions, the GROW Act would allow a graduate of any Ohio 4-year college or university three years without state income tax if they remain in Ohio after graduation. Cross explained graduates would apply for the refund each year.

University presidents praised the bill, saying the combination of grants, loans and opportunities for real world experience could give Ohio’s higher education a competitive edge. It comes as a decades-long deindustrialization of the Midwest contributes to population decline in many parts of Ohio.

“The future of this country depends on innovation exactly in states like Ohio and the Midwest,” said Dr. Kristina Johnson, the Ohio State University president.

At the same time, the state estimates colleges and universities at home are losing 10-40 percent of their graduates to job opportunities outside of Ohio. The so-called “brain drain” phenomenon may be compounding the workforce shortage many employers are seeing.

“This is a big deal toward educating the next part of the workforce. The next part is to get people… to move back to Ohio or move to Ohio,” said former Congressman Steve Stivers, who now serves as president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

Stivers and Cross said offering tax breaks and loan forgiveness to those who choose to stay in Ohio could make the state more attractive to new job seekers and therefore bolster Ohio’s economy.

“Where does the first dollar go when we put a 70, 80, 90-billion dollar budget together? Well I think it should go right here into our education and into our future workforce,” said Cross.

The bill sponsor could not offer a cost estimate for the bill, but he suggested the long-term economic benefits could outweigh its initial expense.

Cross said, “Quite frankly, it might cost Ohio. But like I said, it’s an investment.”

The state representative hopes to see the GROW Act move through the statehouse by December 2022 or be included in the 2023 state operating budget.