Pennsylvania’s new blueprint for state colleges focuses on access, affordability

Last week, Governor Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania proposed sweeping changes to two- and four-year state-funded colleges, releasing a three-point blueprint that would place many of these schools under the same governance system, increase state funding based on school performance, and lower tuition for students from low- and middle-income households, The New York Times reports.

Pennsylvania’s public higher education system has faced three decades of disinvestment, leaving colleges and universities to compete for limited funding, the governor’s office said in a press release. Resulting tuition increases have left lower-income students struggling to afford a college education, Higher Ed Dive reports. At the same time, Pennsylvania’s population has declined, shrinking by more than 40,000 residents between 2021 and 2022, according to Census data

In the last decade, enrollment at community colleges and the 10 public schools that make up the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) have dropped 30% and 37%, respectively. Pennsylvania ranks 48th in the nation for affordability and 49th for state investment in higher education. To respond to these challenges, the governor convened a Higher Education Working Group, and the new proposals are based on their recommendations.

‘Lowest-cost option for students’

The first part of the three-point blueprint includes consolidation of the 10 PASSHE universities and all 15 of the state’s community colleges under the same governing system. There are no plans to close campuses as part of this consolidation, the Times reports. State funding of public higher education institutions would also increase through the use of a performance-based funding formula that rewards colleges based on increased enrollment, the number of first-generation college students that receive credentials, the graduation rate, and other metrics, according to the governor’s office. Research has found that performance-based funding models—used in at least 41 states—moderately raise enrollment and retention, though they may unintentionally reduce access to college for students from underserved communities, Higher Ed Dive says.  

In addition, the plan aims to lower tuition and fees to $1,000 per semester at state-owned universities and community colleges for Pennsylvania residents from households with income at or below approximately $70,000—the state’s median income. In-state tuition at the majority of PASSE colleges is $7,716 a year. The plan will also increase Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants for all students enrolled at state-related universities that receive some public funding but operate independently, such as Pennsylvania State University. Details on the proposal’s price tag are expected during the governor’s Feb. 6 budget message, the Times reports. The blueprint was endorsed by state higher education, business, and government leaders, including PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein. 

“The governor’s proposal is a real opportunity to build upon the strengths of PASSHE universities and the community colleges,” Greenstein said in the press release. “Together we can create a new, larger system with better collaboration that gives students more pathways to a degree or credential, rapidly adjusts to the changing knowledge and skills employers want, and provides the lowest-cost option for students throughout their lifetime.”

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