When I appear before the state Senate Appropriations Committee this Thursday, I will present a choice – will all Pennsylvanians have access to affordable career-relevant college education that is critical to the economic health and well-being of this Commonwealth?
Readers have no doubt heard and read about the challenges confronting Pennsylvania's providers of public higher education. Graduating student debt load in Pennsylvania is third highest in the nation at more than $35,000. Particularly hard hit are low-income students, students of color, rural students, and adults who need to re-skill and up-skill to remain viable in the labor market.
These students are being priced out of pursuing higher education.
These students, for which public higher education was born to serve, show up in greater numbers at our State System universities than others. That's a good thing.
Yet, challenges facing Pennsylvania are pressing and would have long-term adverse effect if left uncorrected.
In order to meet Pennsylvania's workforce needs, 60 percent of adults will need some kind of education after high school to fully meet today's workforce needs. The problem is, only 48 percent of adults actually have met that requirement. Unless and until we close the gap, Pennsylvania's economy will lag.
Closing this gap requires us —the Commonwealth — to make public higher education more attainable by improving affordability, and in so doing, improving accessibility. We can't close the gap until we assure that all students have the opportunity to pursue an affordable, high-quality education.
How do we create an affordable higher education pathway? Increased investment. And that's why we have asked for $487 million in state appropriations for 2020-21, a 2 percent increase over the current fiscal year. And we're also asking state leaders to support a new, separate $20 million investment, part of a 5-year, $100 million project that will redesign some operations, leading to substantial cost savings and new potential revenues. And a new, creative $200 million need-based scholarship program proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf would also increase the affordability of a higher education degree for students.
But the General Assembly cannot do this alone. Nor is this only about money. Reinvigorating public higher education as an engine of social mobility and economic development requires partnership. System leadership and our universities must make impactful choices and decisions— many of which we've already begun to make.
We implemented a tuition freeze last summer and begun fundamentally to restructure our system so that universities collaborate to reduce costs and expand educational opportunity. Increasingly, students at any of our 14 universities will have access to educational opportunities at all 14.
We have chosen to rapidly evolve our programs so they respond to changing student and employer needs – introducing online educational options for working adults and others, and growing programs in high need disciplines. Did you know more than half our students graduate in STEM, health, business, and education?
We have chosen bold, proactive measures to enable our universities – working together in creative new ways – to align their costs with their enrollments.
Student enrollments are down 20% since 2010. Our staff and faculty are down by only seven percent. Not a good pattern if it persists for too long in an industry where 75% of all operating costs are tied up in salary and benefits. And we cannot – we will not – ask the General Assembly to subsidize cost imbalances that we are unable or unwilling to address.
We have chosen radical transparency with the people. This year, the book we submit annually to the General Assembly in support of our appropriations request includes our first-ever accountability dashboard, in which you may learn about our State System's universities' successes, challenges, trajectory, and prospects.
So when I ask the General Assembly to consider hard choices this week, I do it asking nothing more of it than is already being delivered by our State System universities.
Delay is not an option. Failure to work together in charting our path will only result in a future that none of us wants.
To do nothing, to continue on as we have assuming students will show up every fall and fill our course sections, to commit to a strategy tied to hope rather than clear, analytically derived outcomes would have disastrous consequences for communities across Pennsylvania, for our employers, and most of all, for our students. Students deserve to have confidence that when they start their education at any of our 14 public universities they can finish their degree and start their careers with as little student debt as possible.
The General Assembly's choice has to do with investment of public funds, and ours with fundamental transformation of our education and business models.
Neither choice can be made alone without the other. Let's jump together into a future that the citizens of this Commonwealth demand and deserve.
Daniel Greenstein is Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Originally published by The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) at www.pennlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.