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STELLE: Senate Higher Education Proposal is a Step in the Right Direction

A lot of bad plans on how to make higher education affordable exist. There is Gov. Josh Shapiro’s vague “blueprint,” which lacks any substantive details. Even worse is President Joe Biden’s efforts to forgive student debt, which won’t even touch rising tuition.

Grow PA” isn’t one of those plans, though.

Pennsylvania Sens. Scott Martin, Ryan Aument, David Argall, and Tracy Pennycuick introduced the new “Grow PA” higher education reform proposal to deal with an uncomfortable fact: Pennsylvania has a shrinking population. They see making our higher education system “more competitive” as one pivotal step to reversing the exodus.

From nursing to construction, Pennsylvania industries face worker shortages with no end in sight. One analysis estimated a shortage of 278,000 nursing support professionals in Pennsylvania by 2026. Grow PA’s refreshing approach would boost aid for high-growth career pathways, attracting students to certifications and degrees that offer genuine employment opportunities.

Moreover, Grow PA grant recipients would, upon graduation, work in the commonwealth. This requisite attempts to mitigate the brain drain the commonwealth has endured for nearly two decades. By encouraging both in- and out-of-state students to study and stay, Pennsylvania could begin to address its severe worker shortage.

The current system of higher education funding—driven by politics—does not serve students or taxpayers well. Every year, lobbying and political posturing channel subsidies to schools like Penn State and Pitt, with most funding going to institutions rather than students.

Instead, our taxpayer dollars should follow students. Moving all state aid to grants administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) puts students first. Students can use their grants to shop around Pennsylvania’s community colleges, universities, and trade schools. This way, schools would be more inclined to offer students the best-valued product, rather than using student aid as a slush fund for ongoing construction and administrative overhead.

While Grow PA is a step in the right direction for higher education, lawmakers should not forget that reforming and improving the K–12 funding pipeline is paramount to ensuring high school graduates are ready for college rigor, which, ultimately, would make it more affordable for them.

Increasingly, students leave high school unprepared for college-level coursework. Only one in five students in the class of 2023 graduated ready for introductory classes. Pennsylvania high school students rank 30th nationally in SAT scores.

As a result, more students must enroll in remedial classes when entering college. This unsavory pattern shifts the financial burden from the schools that failed to teach them to the students who must now pay tuition for remedial coursework, potentially prolonging their enrollment and extending their stay beyond the traditional four-year timeframe. Many Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) schools and state-related schools lag behind the national four-year graduation rate of 46.6 percent.

To prepare students for college-level coursework, students need a robust educational ecosystem of elementary and secondary schools. Just like competition between universities improves the value of higher education, more choices for K–12 education will help kids find a school where they can thrive academically.

To grow educational choice, lawmakers must protect and expand existing programs, such as Pennsylvania’s two tax credit scholarship programs, or adopt new ones, such as the Lifeline Scholarship Program (also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success). These programs ensure funding follows students.

Moreover, what good is a degree or certificate in a lackluster job market?

A Commonwealth Foundation poll found that more than half of Pennsylvanians 30 years and younger have considered leaving the state, know somebody thinking about leaving, or know someone who has already left. Nearly three out of four exiting Pennsylvanians are younger than 65.

By reforming the commonwealth’s excessive regulatory environment, Pennsylvania lawmakers can transform our economy. Reducing Pennsylvania regulatory red tape by 36 percent would increase the state’s gross domestic product by $9.2 billion a year and create a vibrant marketplace for newly graduated students.

Yes, fixing higher education—bolstering competition and accountability—is necessary to help break Pennsylvania’s decades-long cycle of bleeding talent. Yet, there’s so much more our lawmakers need to get right to keep and attract talent to the Keystone State.

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GAMBESCIA: College Boards Need to Make a Mission Check

Recent calls to investigate colleges’ fidelity to their historical mission and possibly revoke their nonprofit status are fair and responsible. 

A review of a nonprofit’s mission by those the organization serves — the public, government and, most important, the Board of Trustees — should not be a superficial act. Ensuring a nonprofit is true to its mission and integrated into all aspects of its operations, especially its core programs and services, is one of the most critical responsibilities of a Board of Trustees.

Nonprofits are an essential and equal contributor to improving the human condition. Along with government and private for-profits, nonprofits are part of the triad sectors in our society. Our government looks favorably toward nonprofits since they can effectively and efficiently provide much of what is needed to support our health, education, safety, welfare and wealth. The more nonprofits can do, the less the government needs to do to provide staff and other resources to the public.

Nonprofits are evidence of a founding principle of the American Spirit: fraternity. As a people, we generally believe we are our brother’s keeper. The fraternal spirit is operationalized via nonprofits, most often through charity. While nonprofits exist in other countries, known as non-governmental organizations, the extent and nature of nonprofits in America are remarkable. Nonprofits are here for the people in almost all endeavors, from supporting the arts to maintaining public zoos.

Nonprofits in the United States have much more latitude and less government oversight than other countries, which may not be such a good thing. Most nonprofits must file an IRS 990 form that asks them to account for their good works, money raised, assets, governance, expenditures and some general operational questions.

In exchange for their nonprofit designation, most nonprofits are exempt from corporate tax, real estate tax and sales tax, and, in most cases, allow individuals and organizations to “write off” donations made to the organization. At a minimum, the government, those the nonprofit serves, and the public expect the nonprofit to be true to its mission. While it is unusual for a nonprofit to lose its designation, some have lost their way.

Some state legislators, and, more recently, employers and the public are growing concerned that colleges are engaged in mission creep. Historically their mission has been knowledge generation and dissemination, and the transfer of knowledge to students, as well as quality job and career preparation, for which parents, students and the government pay “good money.” 

Evidence is growing that added to this mission, and possibly replacing it in part, is the cultivation or indoctrination of student political and socio-cultural activists for the pet causes of the faculty and, more recently, the college administrators.

Traditionally, the public has given faculty and students much latitude in what they consider a sacred space for the free market of ideas. However, campus protests by students, faculty and others against the conflict between Hamas and Israel morphed from the obligatory “give peace a chance” to screams to eliminate the Jews, which is a stark reason to suspect that “the kids are (not) all right.”

Three “top” university presidents could not muster an unequivocal response to members of a congressional committee that their schools’ student codes of conduct do not condone calls for the genocide of Jews. Understandably, college boards of trustees at these three schools, and likely more across the country, will be asked if they have been paying attention to their most important fiduciary responsibility to ensure the mission of the college is integrated into all aspects of its core functions: Teaching/learning and scholarship/research.

Expect a class of mantras between the faculty’s “curriculum belongs to the faculty” and the nonprofit board orientation manual’s “board members are not to micromanage the organization.” Both are true. However, board members of nonprofit colleges do have the ultimate responsibility to hire or fire the president, strategic planning, ensure legal compliance, ethical conduct and assurance of mission integration, especially within its core “deliverable” — teaching/learning, research and select service.

Nonprofit colleges have choices for their legal status, including being a for-profit entity. There are several types of nonprofit categories. Not all need to be 501(c)3 and charitable. The IRS allows nonprofits to be politically engaged, if they request such status. Much focus on the concerns for what is being taught in the curriculum, co-curriculum and hidden curriculum on our college campuses will be on the disillusionment of donors who have been true to their schools. The more salient focus should be on Boards of Trustees ensuring colleges are true to their mission in all aspects of their enterprise.

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PA Community Colleges Graduate Few Students, Hope for Billions From Biden Spending Boon

When U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona came to the Delaware Valley earlier this month to tout President Joe Biden’s $109 billion plan for free community college, he stopped to visit Montgomery County Community College.

“What I saw here today, not only from the students but just the way it’s designed to be successful,” Cardona said, “this is a gem.”

What America’s top education official didn’t mention was MCCC’s graduation rate: 25 percent. And that’s for students after three years for a two-year program. The rate of on-time graduation is just 12 percent.

Cardona toured the Blue Bell campus with U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery), who said her focus is on “equity.”

“It will bring equity to education, which is something that frustrates me as a parent, and as a former professor of 10 years,” Dean said of Biden’s community-college spending binge. “You could see that some people just didn’t have a shot because of the expense, because of the access and other things.”

The MCCC graduation rate for African American students is 11 percent.

This, say critics of the Biden plan, is the fatal flaw of pouring billions of new funding into the nation’s community college system. According to data from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), the median completion rate for community college — students getting their degree or certificate within six years of enrollment —  is just 25.7 percent.

That’s half the rate of four-year state universities (49.8 percent) and “for-profit” or career colleges (51.7 percent).

“Before the feds invest this money in community colleges, we need to change the mindset,” says Ray Domanico,  senior fellow and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute. “We need to change the incentives. Right now, the schools get the revenue regardless of the outcomes.”

Pennsylvania community colleges rank 33 in a national ranking of 41 state community college systems by the data analysts at WalletHub. In its ranking of 13 out of Pennsylvania’s 15 community colleges, Bucks County was listed as the best and Allegheny County the worst.

The national ranking of community college systems included 685 schools from member institutions in the American Association of Community Colleges. “Due to data limitations, we were unable to include all member schools. This is why some colleges are missing from the ranking,” Diana Polk, communications manager at WalletHub, told Delaware Valley Journal.

“The ranking system was based on 19 metrics grouped in three key dimensions: Cost and financing, education outcomes, and career outcomes. Some of the most important metrics included the cost of in-state tuition, the availability of free community college education, retention rates, graduation rates, but also the median salary after attending,” said Jill Gonzalez, a WalletHub analyst.

Based on the WalletHub rankings of individual community colleges in the U.S., only two Pennsylvania colleges ranked in the top half — Bucks County and Butler County. “There is clearly a lot to be improved in terms of community college education in the state,” according to Gonzalez.

Some schools dispute the relevance of the rankings.

“I find the methodology used to compile this list extremely problematic, given that some of the metrics being measured do not equate to the category being assessed and/or are outside the industry standard,” said Elizabeth Johnston, executive director of public relations and marketing at the Community College of Allegheny County.

However, the “completion rate” data (the phrase used by education professionals) is not in question.

Defenders of the community college system argue measuring their performance by “completion rates” is unfair. They note the schools cater to non-traditional students, many of whom use college classes differently than typical students attending a four-year school.

“There are people who are looking to get what I call ‘new-collar jobs’ like computer coding, hospitality, things like that. And because our k-12 schools don’t teach these skills, they push it onto the community colleges,” said Michael T. Miller, professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas. “Other students want to get some courses out of the way before they transfer to four-year schools. So you get people who enroll in the local community college, they take two classes — like the hard chemistry class or the language classes — then transfer out. And then that community college is showing a failed student or somebody who drops out.”

Nonsense, says Dr. Jason Altmirme, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU) and a former Democratic member of Congress.

“Completion rates are completion rates. If you’re an education policymaker, the facts are what they are. And the facts are our sector’s graduation rates are double those of community colleges.”

Altmire notes the Biden administration’s education policy, like that of the Obama administration, is openly hostile to privately-operated career colleges and often uses completion rate data to push regulations on the industry. The source of the completion-rate data above — TICAS — was co-founded by Robert Shireman, an anti-career college activist and veteran of the Obama education department.

Shireman, a longtime advocate of free college who left the Obama administration “under an ethical cloud,” according to a watchdog organization, is now helping the Biden administration craft higher ed regulations. Critics note those regulations would favor community colleges regardless of the schools’ performance and ignore successes in the career-college sector.

“We do not support proposals that arbitrarily pick and choose winners amongst different sectors of higher education,” says Aaron Shenck, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators. “Unilateral funding proposals discriminate against students who decide to attend other institutions that often have better student outcomes than the government-subsidized alternative.”

The performance of Pennsylvania’s community colleges raises serious questions about Biden’s $109 billion “free college” plan.

Reporter Maria Marabito contributed to this report.