Reimagining Higher Ed’s Role in Pennsylvania – and Beyond

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

In a thoughtful commentary on Philly.com recently, Pennsylvania State Treasurer Joe Torsella, offered an insightful perspective on Pennsylvania’s #1 national ranking for most college debt per student, a dubious distinction. The level has reached $35,000 at graduation, or roughly the price of a fully loaded, full–sized new car. It’s a growing problem but not an insurmountable crisis.

Mr. Torsella argues that “time for a big and bold conversation about what public higher education in Pennsylvania should look like in the 21st century, a conversation that looks at both reform and reinvestment.” He notes a Georgetown University study found that “95 percent of jobs added since 2010 require some form of postsecondary education, whether trade school, community college, or a four-year program.”

Mr. Torsella is correct to argue that Pennsylvania’s state government has failed to adequately fund public higher education, especially in the Great Recession years and thereafter. And he is right to decry the level of indebtedness compared to the average in other states. But on a couple of points, the national numbers confuse a part of the story.

Distinctive characteristics of higher education in Pennsylvania

First, Pennsylvania has 90 private colleges and universities with sticker prices higher than the state-subsidized public tuition numbers.

Second, the Commonwealth also has a unique category of schools – state-related – including the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University where tuition prices have been historically higher than their state-owned counterparts.

And third, Pennsylvania has offset some of its high tuition public and private sticker prices through support for its PHEAA student aid program, among the most generous in the country. Collectively, these conditions affect the level of student debt.

Transition from industrial powerhouse to knowledge-based economy

These differences aside, Mr. Torsella’s points make a great deal of sense. Pennsylvania was an industrial and manufacture powerhouse whose economy has shifted dramatically in the past 70 years. Today’s renaissance in Pittsburgh illustrates this point nicely. But for the rest of America, Pennsylvania embodies a state in the throes of transition, moving to a post-industrial economy that is largely shaped in its biggest cities and their “eds and meds” complexes.

This is the point on which Mr. Torsella’s argument holds together best. Pennsylvania has an enormous higher education community, anchored by some of the most prestigious institutions in the country. The two questions that he raises on reform and reinvestment make sense. Now is the time to have the discussion.

Reform begins with understanding of how state government works

Conversations about public support for education must start with an understanding of the realities of how state government operates. It’s very hard to plan for a future when state funding is dependent on an annual appropriations cycle and competing political interests. Any action must be consensus-driven and benefit, at whatever level possible, from both legislative and executive branches.

Further, any reform must include a willingness on the part of colleges and universities to see themselves in the mix of needed reforms. They must become more efficient and accountable.

Futures of public and private colleges are connected

But what is missing from Mr. Torsella’s analysis is an understanding that Pennsylvania is neither a public nor a private college state. It’s both. The two are not mutually exclusive and their futures are intertwined. Philadelphia is home to Temple and to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel. Pittsburgh is the home to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. The conversation must be comprehensive. The agenda must be thoughtful and complete.

Any overarching strategy in Pennsylvania must be linked to broader questions. In Massachusetts, for example, former Governor Deval Patrick made a critical investment in the state’s biotech community. Years later, the results have transformed the regional economy and precipitated a boom in metropolitan Boston that highlighted growing income inequality, rising housing prices, the need for public transportation improvements, and the importance of better basic education outcomes. While these are persistent problems, they are also the next generation of problems that growing post-industrial economies face.

Greater Boston is a robust place because Massachusetts placed a bet on a rapidly expanding industry that pulled higher education squarely into its economic development and workforce preparation mix.

Colleges and universities are economic engines fueling state’s economy

An ambitious strategy to play to the strengths of Pennsylvania by using its extraordinary colleges and universities could increase access and opportunity and link the state’s disparate regions together. Its government leaders must better appreciate that colleges are also economic engines that fuel the state’s economy.

What would rural Pennsylvania look like without its mix of public and private colleges providing jobs that have long since evaporated in once-booming industries in their areas?

Pennsylvania already has a dynamic higher educator incubator in place. The model works in states like North Carolina, Texas, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. It’s already operating successfully in cities like Pittsburgh. Yet as discretionary spending decreases, Pennsylvania state leaders have important choices to make. One must be to support public higher education better.

The second must be to recognize that Pennsylvanians are in this together. It’s not just a public college problem. But it can become a opportunity to re-imagine how its colleges and universities can redefine Pennsylvania’s presence on the national stage.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.

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