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Pennsylvania capital building

Lawmakers from both parties are drawing attention to higher education at the state capitol in Harrisburg.

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In January, Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro unveiled his blueprint for a sweeping overhaul of the state higher education system to meet his goal: bolstering public colleges stretched thin by years of budget cuts and enrollment declines while increasing college affordability and workforce development. Now lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are filing legislation to make the governor’s vision a reality.

There may be bipartisan agreement that the state’s higher ed system needs to change, but the right and left have very different views on how to achieve that. The Democrats have introduced a bill that would establish a coordinating State Board of Higher Education and provide enough need-based aid to ensure all students at or below the median income level pay no more than $1,000 per semester. Republicans, on the other hand, have advanced a package of six bills emphasizing a less authoritative task force and more targeted scholarships focused on bringing in out-of-state students and filling workforce gaps. The one topic on which both parties seem to agree is the need for a more consistent, performance-based funding model.

In a purple state with a narrowly divided legislature, compromise will be necessary to translate the abstract overhaul concept into a solid plan. Yet with just three weeks left until the state budget deadline, lawmakers, higher education officials and outside policy experts seem optimistic.

“I’m actually really heartened to see something positive happening in the [public] higher ed space in Pennsylvania. It’s been a while since there’s been significant investments or even rethinking on what was possible,” said Wil Del Pilar, former state deputy secretary of postsecondary education.

“I’m hopeful that if you have two parties that agree that we need reforms to higher ed, you actually could get something done, ” added Del Pilar, now senior vice president of The Education Trust, a nonprofit focused on academic equity. “These are clearly ‘marker’ bills. So it’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end.”

A State Board of Higher Ed

With nearly 250 colleges and universities—including more than 40 that are public—Pennsylvania is home to more higher education institutions than any state except California, Texas and New York.

Yet, not all are flourishing. Many of the state’s public institutions have seen drastic enrollment declines since 2010. They form a complex web with little oversight: 15 independent community colleges and four multi-campus universities—Pennsylvania State, Temple and Lincoln Universities as well as the University of Pittsburgh—all of which receive state funding but none of which is state-owned. The only institutions directly governed by the state are the 10 regional colleges of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

Governor Shapiro tried to tackle this unruly oversupply in his original blueprint by proposing to consolidate the community colleges and PASSHE under one governing board. Democrats and Republicans alike quickly nixed that idea. One lawmaker described it as a lead balloon in light of pushback from community college leaders who worried it would prevent them from meeting local demands. But the two parties parted ways in deciding what to do instead.

The Democrats’ bill, co-sponsored by Senator Jay Costa and Representative Peter Schweyer, suggests a more expansive but less authoritative coordinating group than the governing board Shapiro originally proposed. It would be called the State Board of Higher Education and represent all the state’s institutions—state-owned, state-related and private.

Responsible for developing an overarching strategic plan for higher ed, the board would collect comprehensive data, suggest tuition caps and advise program cuts to avoid too much overlap. It would not, however, have the power to enact policy; that responsibility would be left to the general assembly.

Representative Schweyer described the board—which would consist of lawmakers from both parties, the secretaries of labor and education, and nine gubernatorial appointees from various colleges, unions and businesses—as a place “for higher education to come together.” It would be charged with creating a long-term plan for sustaining higher ed, while also quickly responding to “catastrophic” situations like the sudden closure of University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

“It’s not a new state bureaucracy or anything like that,” he said. “But it gives a space for those folks in academia to do some of the meaningful work that will actually impact the lives of students.”

Republicans have a different view. They say that even a coordinating board would have too much authority and require too many additional government staff members to support it. Instead, they suggest a task force composed almost purely of postsecondary administrators that would focus more on gathering information that institutions can then apply how they best see fit.

“A lot of these [coordinating] systems exist to tell you what to do,” said Senator Scott Martin, chair of the appropriations committee and a sponsor of several bills in the GOP package. “In a very diverse state like Pennsylvania, not everyone buys into that.”

An Increase in Student Aid

The other key focus of both proposals is increasing financial aid. According to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), Pennsylvania is one of the least affordable states to attend college, with tuition at only 18 percent of two-year institutions and no four-year institutions deemed affordable for low- and moderate-income families. The national averages are 63 and 31 percent, respectively.

While both parties agree students deserve a more affordable degree, the consensus stops there.

Democrats continue to push Shapiro’s plan to ensure that residents making up to the median income pay no more than $1,000 in tuition and fees per semester at any state-owned institution—a rather bold step in a state where tuition averages $7,716 per semester.

The GOP, in a collection of four different aid bills, suggests a more targeted approach focused on drawing in out-of-state students and meeting current workforce demands. The legislation would offer up to $5,000 per year for Pennsylvania residents, and in-state tuition for out-of-state students who attend any public college, pursue a degree in a high-demand industry and agree to live in the state and work in that industry after graduation. If a student fails to maintain the requirements, the grant would be converted to a loan.

“The idea of increasing aid to the point where every student only has to pay $1,000 per semester is a little unreasonable,” Martin said. “I’m more concerned about what we are investing in. Because if we’re helping to subsidize degrees that aren’t going to lend to Pennsylvania jobs … taxpayers don’t really win.”

Senator Costa, a co-sponsor of the Democratic bill, was less concerned about finding the funds, but admitted it could be one of several points lawmakers have to compromise on.

“There’s some stark differences and we have to work through them over the course of the next several weeks before we get to a final budget number,” he said. “And I don’t know whether we’re going to make the June 30 deadline or not. But at the end of the day, we have to continue to work through this and reach consensus.”

Expert Weigh In

Despite a budget impasse that delayed the appropriation of funds to state colleges and universities for months last year, the governor is hopeful that there’s more collective support for increased funds and general reform efforts this time around.

“I think what you’re seeing in the Senate is a willingness in trying to address the fact that we’re 49th in the nation when it comes to higher ed,” Shapiro said during a press conference Tuesday. “We listened to Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate … [And] we’re going to work together, as we did on this legislation and others, to find common ground.”

Higher education administrators and policy experts were reluctant to analyze the details of the overhaul bills in their early stages; the Democrats’ bill is still in committee, and the Republican bills passed the Senate on Tuesday. But they generally expressed a positive view of the developments.

PASSHE chancellor Dan Greenstein said he is “optimistic” and “look[s] forward to continuing conversations with the governor and legislature to improve opportunities for students.” Representatives from Temple, Pitt and Penn State all praised the introduction of a more transparent, performance-based funding model.

John Sygielski, president of Harrisburg Area Community College, and Marta Yera Cronin, president of Delaware County Community College, said they were eager to collaborate more with one another as well as with the state’s four-year institutions. But they were also pleased that lawmakers avoided implementing too much state control and praised the idea of increased funding.

“It’s really about cost savings, and making education more affordable and accessible and that’s part of who we are as a community college,” Sygielski said. “I see this probably as a project over the next couple of years. But right now I’m glad to see all of the proposals and I look at them as that.”

Brian Prescott, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), noted that “the devil will be in the details,” and expressed worry that the current proposals don’t offer enough state-level control.

“The state is dealing with a situation that’s been decades in the making. And I think that if Pennsylvania really wants to solve this in a bipartisan manner, it’s going to take some money, but it’s also going to take some exercise of real authority, and a coordinating board that has the capacity to really be a useful contributor to planning,” he said. “It’s a complex industry facing really complex conditions. And there needs to be a viable organization to help the state make smart investments that meet, that align with, state goals and are not simply the aggregation of the institutional goals.”

Still, he said, while many questions remain unanswered, he’s been pleasantly surprised at how much traction the issue has gotten on both sides of the aisle.

As Joni Finney, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, said, “This is something that’s probably going to open the door for the next legislative session. But we just have to remember that the longer we wait, the less money there will be and the harder the problem will be to solve.”

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