For higher education, “Now is the winter of our discontent” (Shakespeare, Richard III).
Colleges and universities are attacked by foes who would prefer an uneducated electorate and are undermined by insiders who outrageously miss teachable moments for clarifying the purpose of education in a democratic society. That purpose includes preparation for fulfilling careers, but transcends simple attainment of higher salaries.
Higher education from its earliest history in the United States has been intended to prepare informed and discerning voters, who are not misled by misinformation and lies, who can engage in civil discourse, and who can elect leaders who are problem solvers, not rabble rousers.
From my own experience as president of regional public universities in three different states, I can attest that our biggest competitor was not another institution. It was nowhere.
Until last week when Governor Josh Shapiro announced his vision of sweeping reform for Pennsylvania higher education, I must confess that my life-long pragmatic optimism was wearing thin. I kept reminding myself that “despair is not a strategy” (a phrase used frequently on social media without attribution. Maybe I originated the phrase, but just in case, in this environment, I’m using quotation marks).
Governor Shapiro’s four-point plan offers hope. He went about its formulation in the right way — with thought and planning assisted by an appointed group of higher education leaders from across Pennsylvania. He outlined the vision and practical ideas 10 days in advance of his February 6 budget address, eliciting bipartisan praise before dollar signs were attached. But he made the fiscal context clear, “pointing out the shameful facts that Pennsylvania ranks 48th for affordability and 49th for investment for its universities.”
What Shapiro is proposing
Let’s look at the proposal point by point:
1. Approximately 10 of the state’s public universities (PASSHE campuses) and approximately 15 community colleges would be organized into a single system.
This new governance structure makes sense, potentially promoting greater cooperation among four-year campuses and ease of transfer from community colleges to universities. As PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein, whose support of this proposal is crucial, said in The Inquirer, “The governor’s proposal is a real opportunity to build upon the strengths of PASSHE universities and community colleges. Together, we can create a new larger system with better collaboration that gives students more pathways to a degree credential, rapidly adjusts to the changing knowledge and skills employers want, and provides the lowest-cost option for students throughout their lifetime.”
2. Pennsylvania residents who earn $70,000 or less would pay no more than $1,000 per semester for tuition and fees at state-owned universities and community colleges. In addition, Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants (PHEAA) would increase by $1,000 for all students attending state-related universities (Temple, Penn State, Lincoln, University of Pittsburgh) and independent colleges.
These measures would offer low-income families support and predictability in planning for college. They would also potentially lower indebtedness — a major burden that discourages students from attending college in the first place. By making higher education more affordable and reducing the threat of indebtedness, under-enrolled PASSHE campuses can expand the student body by attracting those college-qualified students who currently go nowhere.
From my own experience as president of regional public universities in three different states, I can attest that our biggest competitor was not another institution. It was nowhere. In every state, the regional publics are the workhorses of higher ed, reaching out to underserved populations and providing pathways for those who would go nowhere to go somewhere and to become somebody. Governor Shapiro’s proposal goes a long way to make that happen in PA.
If the Governor can pull this off, it could be a model for other states.
3. The governor’s proposal calls for performance-based funding, rewarding the graduation of first-generation college students, along with overall increased rates of enrollment and graduation. He would end the requirement that two-thirds of both legislative chambers approve funding for Penn State and the other state-related schools. Given the state’s polarized politics, this requirement has led to unacceptable delays each year in funding these essential institutions, making long-range — even middle-range — planning nearly impossible.
4. Finally, Governor Shapiro wants university funding to go through the state’s Department of Education, not the Legislature. What a concept! The Department of Education could distribute funds based on principles, not politics. Rather than having multiple legislators arguing for the colleges in their districts, we would have professionals overseeing a state-wide plan. If the Governor can pull this off, it could be a model for other states.
Would I like to see other — or different — things in the Governor’s plan? Of course. I’m in favor of free tuition for community college and regional universities. It would be great to include incentives for full-time professors to teach first-year classes and to include funding for internships. But we cannot allow individual preferences to get in the way of what on the whole is transformative.
Sure “the devil is in the details.” (Who said that first? I don’t know, but it’s in quotation marks.) Amidst their initial positive comments, the Republicans are grousing about costs and “fiscal cliffs.” Let’s hope that the cost of ignorance is factored into any resistance to implementing the Governor’s blueprint for higher education.
“Hope is not a strategy” either. The careful planning that preceded the January 26 announcement presages a workable implementation. If so, this “winter of our discontent” could be made “glorious summer by this sun” (Shakespeare, Richard III) of Harrisburg.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on X.
MORE ON HIGHER EDUCATION BY ELAINE MAIMONCollege Day 2024 at the Governor's Mansion with Josh Shapiro and PA students. Courtesy of Commonwealth Media.