Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 26, 2024
A semester at a state university or community college would cost just $1,000 for many students under a proposal Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said he will detail in his second budget address next month.
Shapiro won the governor’s office in 2022 campaigning, in part, on improving access to higher education and developing Pennsylvania’s workforce to boost the state’s economy. In his first budget address last February, Shapiro declared the state’s higher education system broken.
“Every Pennsylvanian deserves the freedom to chart their own course and the opportunity to succeed,” Shapiro said in a statement. “For some, that means going right into the workforce – but for those who want to go to college or get a credential, we need to rethink our system of higher education.”
Pennsylvania’s public universities have suffered disinvestment for 30 years, Shapiro said, leaving students without enough affordable options to earn a degree and enter the workforce. Pennsylvania spends less on higher education than any other state except New Hampshire, the governor’s office noted.
Enrollment in state universities and community college has decreased by about a third, the governor’s office said. And colleges are competing for the same students, duplicating programs, driving up costs and reducing access.
On Friday, Shapiro announced a three-pronged plan to reinvigorate public higher education by:
- Uniting Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities with the state’s 15 community colleges under a new governance system;
- Setting tuition at those schools at $1,000 per semester for low and moderate income students and increasing Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants for students attending private universities by $1,000;
- And distributing state appropriations to Pennsylvania’s state-related universities – the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities – according to a performance-based formula.
Democratic lawmakers spoke in support of the plan, noting that it would help Pennsylvanians avoid the burden of student debt.
“We need to make it easier and more affordable for students to attend our state schools, which provide vital job training and a quality higher education for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians every year and remove barriers for students transferring between schools here in the commonwealth,” House Democratic leaders said in a statement.
While Republican lawmakers said the plan was short on details, they said they were glad to see the administration join Republicans in putting students first while acknowledging the state’s financial needs.
“We will work with education stakeholders, the administration, and Pennsylvania families to continue moving away from the endless funding of systems in Pennsylvania so we can move toward a student-first, family-focused, and taxpayer-accountable system of higher education,” Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), said.
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) said ensuring that Pennsylvania is an economic leader depends on a strong workforce and jobs in the commonwealth and preserving access to higher education is a key to promoting economic growth.
Pittman said the changes that Shapiro proposed are substantial and his plan lacked information about how the state would fund them. Key considerations in implementing such changes include the cost to taxpayers and the impact on communities where state universities are located, Pittman added..
“Details matter and a proposal of this magnitude will require extremely close examination,” Pittman said, adding that he looks forward to discussing the proposal with Shapiro and fellow lawmakers.
For several years, funding for the state-related universities used only to provide tuition discounts for Pennsylvania residents, has stalled in the General Assembly during budget season. Republican lawmakers have cited objections to research using fetal tissue cells, gender affirming care, a lack of transparency, and rising tuition as reasons for withholding the two-thirds majority votes needed to approve appropriations to the private institutions.
State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who is the GOP’s ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, was less complimentary of Shapiro’s plan, however, describing it as a “three-step plan for financial disaster.” It would come with unsustainable spending increases, depletion of the state’s $12 billion surplus and future tax increases, Grove said.
“The bottom line is this plan creates more bureaucracy, necessitates more spending, and creates more questions than answers,” Grove said, adding that it doesn’t comport with the Republican position that the state should fund students, not institutions.
“Shapiro should propose direct grants so every child of God will have options for higher education. But given his track record on reneging on school choice, it appears the Governor is once again siding with unions over students,” Grove said.
Shapiro’s announcement included statements of support from the heads of the state university system and each of the state-related universities.
PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein said the consolidation of several state universities over the last six years has shown that collaboration benefits students, communities and employers. Shapiro’s proposal would build on the strengths of state universities and community colleges.
“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,” Greenstein said.
Performance-based funding for the state-related universities would not only improve transparency and accountability, Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi said, but it would also help ensure positive outcomes for students.
“I am extremely pleased to see that part of Gov. Shapiro’s blueprint is a call to establish a predictable performance-based funding formula, and we look forward to working with the legislature to implement such a model,” Bendapudi said.
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