State System leader calls for bigger investment in higher education

Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein spoke to the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday about the state's talent gap and how a bigger investment in higher education could help address it. 

Pennsylvania needs more educated people in its workforce but the cost of obtaining that post-secondary education in state is out of reach for many.

It’s a dilemma that the leader of Pennsylvania’s state universities said is one is of critical importance to the state’s economy – and one that requires a higher level of investment from the state.

“Sixty percent of all jobs today in the state of Pennsylvania require people to have some kind of higher education,” State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein told those in attendance at Monday’s Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon. “How many adults in the state of Pennsylvania have some higher education? Guesses? Fifty percent.”

Making matters worse, he said that gap is growing as demand for workers with higher education credentials increases and enrollments are shrinking. Enrollment in the 14 state universities saw its largest drop this year in at least two decades and now stands at less than 89,000.

One path to close the gap could be to encourage college-educated adults from elsewhere to move to Pennsylvania, but Greenstein said the state’s tax code favors those who are retired more so than the working population. Another way is for the state to invest more in higher education to make it more affordable.

He pointed out that Pennsylvania is the seventh most expensive state to attend college; has the second highest debt load, with students leaving college owing an average of $36,000; and the level of state investment in higher education ranks 48th in the nation.

Greenstein and State System of Higher Education board Chairwoman Cynthia Shapira recently sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders urging them to make a historic investment in the state-owned university system.

The letter asks for $550 million in state support toward the system’s operating budget next year (an increase of nearly $73 million) and begin to make an annual allocation of $201 million in direct aid to students that attend a system university to help them cover tuition and other costs.

This is in addition to the governor and lawmakers’ promised one-time investment of $200 million over three years to redesign the system to address its financial challenges and expand student opportunities.

Greenstein said the request for recurring direct-to-student funding for state system students would result in an increase in enrollment of at least 8%, address the state’s talent gap, and “help close – but not eliminate” the gap between the price a Pennsylvania student pays to attend a state university and what students in the five contiguous states pay to attend a public university in their state.

The chancellor said in an interview afterward the response to the letter has been mixed. He said most of the lawmakers he interacts with recognize the policy decisions that lay before them when it comes to addressing the state’s workforce dilemma.

“They understand where we are. Nobody likes it either. But I think they get it and the question is what are the range of options to begin to address it,” Greenstein said. “This is a tough issue.”

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