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State college system still in the dark about higher ed reform plan

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(The Center Square) — A sense of frustration spread through the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday as legislators struggled to get the specifics of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s higher education reform plan.

Chancellor Dan Greenstein, head of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, wasn’t privy to the details either, but reiterated his appeal for more funding to deliver another tuition freeze for PASSHE students.

“When you invest in institutions, you see improvements with student outcomes,” Greenstein said. “When you invest in affordability, you see enrollment improvements.”

The system wants a $38 million, 6.5% increase to its appropriation, which would total $624 million.

“Freezing tuition again is a priority for PASSHE and would benefit our students, many of whom are from low- and middle-income families,” Greenstein said in a press release before the hearing. “The State System has kept tuition flat for six years through a combination of greater investment from the commonwealth and cost reductions. Freezing tuition is proving to help students, spurring a 10% increase in new student enrollment over the last two years, increasing retention rates as students stay on course to graduate, and improving educational achievement and success for low-income and underrepresented minority students.”

But legislators, looking to learn details of what a transformed college system would look like, came up empty. The Shapiro administration hasn’t involved the system enough in the reform plan for the chancellor to answer many questions during the hearing.

“I can’t answer that question,” Greenstein said when Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Pittsburgh, asked about how much money PASSHE would receive in Shapiro’s proposal.

“I don’t know,” Greenstein said when Sen. Tracy Pennycuick, R-Red Hill, asked about how the plan would affect university endowments.

“I can’t answer that question,” Greenstein said when Sen. Rosemary Brown, R-Scotrun, asked why he wasn’t involved in a working group comprising community college and universities leaders to discuss future changes.

Shapiro’s higher ed proposal is still in the works, with Greenstein as interested in the details as legislators, but he acknowledged that much of it will be out of his hands.

“This is a process and it’s a long process, so — is that zen when you say ‘I’m surrendering to the river?’ — this is gonna be a great discussion, it’s a policy decision,” Greenstein said. “I can’t imagine it doesn’t require at some point some action by the General Assembly. I have faith in you.”

A contentious moment came between Greenstein and Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, over enrollment declines within the recently combined universities of PennWest and Commonwealth Universities, even after “root and branch reform” of academic programs and complete reorganization of personnel, as Greenstein described it.

“We can’t seem to get these new integrated systems to perform appropriately,” Phillips-Hill said. “If the education being provided is a value and is relevant, you would see an enrollment increase. Now we’re gonna take this on, you have no answers, and I’m really, really concerned … I’m leaving here even more concerned than I came into this hearing.”

Sen. Scott Martin, R-Strasburg and chair of the committee, emphasized the importance of using higher ed to invest in outcomes and what the Pennsylvania economy needs. The strategy is to keep young Pennsylvanians from leaving the state.

“The biggest threat to this commonwealth that we face is our demographic decline,” Martin said. “Combine that with an aging population … where’s our future workforce? Where’s our future tax base?”

Greenstein noted that the reforms of recent years have been done in a cooperative way with the General Assembly.

“If everything is not focused on how we grow Pennsylvania, how we compete with the states that have figured it out … we will continue a downward spiral,” Martin said. “Higher education is probably one of the most critical components of it, and reform is needed, but we have to get it absolutely right.”

Greenstein warned that high costs have been a barrier to attracting students, but argued that boosting state funds for students benefits everyone in the long-run.

“The state gets an $8 return for every dollar invested in PASSHE in terms of economic impact,” Greenstein said.