FOR SIX months, the 31-member Commission on Postsecondary Education formed by Gov. Tom Corbett studied, discussed and debated the future of higher education in the commonwealth. Under the direction of former state senator Rob Wonderling, who is now the president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the process proved to be both fascinating and results-oriented.
The commission, to which I was appointed to by Gov. Corbett, was charged with developing suggestions and recommendations on how to make higher education more accessible and affordable for students and taxpayers, alike.
Representatives of state-owned and state-affiliated institutions such as Temple, Penn State, and Pitt, as well as representatives of community colleges and private non-profit institutions, including Misericordia University, participated in the process, as did key business leaders, and privately-owned and career-focused institutions. The recommendations made to the governor were extensive, but were very much a derivative of the fiscal constraints under which the state is now operating under and will be for the foreseeable future. Pennsylvania and most of the nation's other 49 states are financially strapped, which makes future financial windfalls for higher education or any other institution in the state problematic.
The recommendations were broken down into four categories. The first affirmed opportunities for lifelong learning. More and more people are not enrolling in post-secondary education immediately following high school graduation. Instead, it is increasingly apparent that people are stepping out of post-secondary education for a while and rejoining it later as new career opportunities arise or when they choose to pursue undergraduate or graduate work. Therefore, the commission recommended a passport to learning, which would ensure Pennsylvania residents with the opportunity to enter or return to college, and still enjoy at least some of the benefits traditional college students receive – including state support for tuition where appropriate.
Secondly, the commission worked diligently on strategies to ensure greater accessibility and affordability of a postsecondary education. Here, the emphasis was placed on acknowledging and rewarding colleges that mitigate tuition increases and keep the costs to taxpayers relatively low. Also, the commission strongly recommended better counseling and financial literacy programs at the high school level to help students and their families make good decisions about college loans and expenditures. Greater transparency in the admissions process also was recommended.
Commission members recognized that Pennsylvania is fortunate to have a variety of college options available to students. Therefore, under the third recommendation, the commission worked to outline future funding structures for both public and private institutions of higher education. There has been a decrease in state support for both sectors in recent years. The commission recommended that, over a period of years, the state should gradually return higher education funding to what it was in 2002. Any additions to that funding would then be based upon stated and measured outcomes at each institution. Such outcomes would include, for instance, the percentage of students graduating on time, job or graduate school placement rates, and student satisfaction. It is impressive that private and public colleges and universities are willing to step up and measure their own effectiveness in return for any increases in state funding.
In order to help keep costs down, the commission also recommended the removal of redundant, expensive reporting processes which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for each institution.
Finally, the commission advocated for increased student participation in achieving a quality postsecondary education. Pennsylvania will only thrive if the percentage of college graduates continues to rise. There is a general agreement among professionals who specialize in economic development about this point. It is also interesting to note that colleges and universities in the Keystone State are a significant factor in the state's ability to attract income and investments from outside our state. We have more colleges and universities per capita than any other state in the union. As a result, Pennsylvania imports many college students who not only bring tuition and other revenue into the state, but also – upon graduation – often stay here and help create the wealth of tomorrow.
Pennsylvania's colleges and universities are willing to work for all that they receive. It is refreshing to know that the postsecondary education system in the commonwealth, while suffering as many are during these uncertain economic times, is poised and ready to produce Pennsylvania's future leaders.
Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas Township Pa.