Pennsylvania State Universities chief sees move to free college as way to fill talent gap

Tuition-free college for low-income students is a long-term goal that the head of Pennsylvania state universities considers necessary if the state is to meet its workforce development needs.

State Higher Education System Chancellor Dan Greenstein told members of a joint meeting of the House Appropriations and Education Committees on Tuesday that more state-funded student aid were needed to make this possible.

“In order to meet the state’s workforce development needs, we’re going to need help,” Greenstein said. “It’s because the students that we have to educate to degree or degree level in order to fill that manpower gap, they tend to come from backgrounds that are least able to pay the price we are required to charge due to investment status level.”

The desire to make college affordable, especially at public universities, was shared by Democratic and Republican committee members.

“We want to lower the price. We want to make our state system an affordable option,” said R-Bedford County Rep. Jesse Topper. Greenstein noted that students in the New York public university system pay about $6,500 less per year than students in the Pennsylvania system.

House Democratic Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Bradford of Montgomery County agreed that the state needs to manage college affordability in a meaningful way and that the definition may vary in different parts of the state.

The chancellor urged lawmakers to consider funding Governor Tom Wolf’s Nellie Bly scholarship proposal, which would provide $200 million in aid to students attending a state university or community college.

Greenstein said the cash injection could provide an additional $5,400 to each of the system’s 36,000 needy students to help put the $23,000 net average cost of the system within better reach for them once other state and federal financial assistance is deducted.

Additionally, he asked lawmakers to increase public funding for the state system by 16%, or $75 million, for a total of $550 million.

Greenstein said that was the base amount needed to run universities, provide student financial aid, and keep the state’s undergraduate tuition rate at $7,716 for a fourth straight year, as the the system’s board approved it earlier this month.

Going forward, he said the system’s demand for credits would be more in line with the rising cost of living. He also called on the General Assembly to follow through on the $150 million in federal COVID-19 relief it pledged to help fund the system overhaul that began six years ago, while helping to fund other of its priorities.

Greenstein’s quarterly appearances before these legislative committees are required by state law enacted in July 2019 that grants the state system board of directors the power to redesign the system. He will appear before the Senate Appropriations and Education Committees on Wednesday.

Tuesday, however, was the first such appearance since signs of progress became evident in efforts to overhaul the system to align college costs with revenue and try to bolster its enrollment, which has fallen this year by the most steep decline in more than two decades.

The system’s board created two new universities by integrating or combining Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield into one institution and California, Clarion, and Edinboro into another.

He secured accreditation for these new universities from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which is essential for them to receive federal funds, including student financial aid.

It also received the NCAA’s blessing last week for each of the six universities that are integrated to retain their own athletic programs. And now, these new universities are gearing up to enroll their first cohort of students in the fall.

“We’re finally seeing a plan come together,” Topper said. “We know there is still work to be done and we will be ready to engage in that process.”

Greenstein said the job is to blend the curriculum of these universities as well as their cultures and put in place the technology to support them.

But beyond that, he said other universities in the system are looking forward to reaching more low- and middle-income students for whom the system was designed to produce the skilled workforce whose state needs.

“There’s a kind of excitement to turn the page into a new chapter of redesign,” Greenstein said. “We have the opportunity to demonstrate what public higher education can really be in the 21st century and there is some excitement about it.”

Other universities in the state system include Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester.

Jan Murphy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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Christy J. Olson