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Governor pitches redesign of public higher education during visit to RACC

It’s a problem that Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shaprio thinks is obvious, and one he thinks needs to be fixed immediately.

Standing inside a nursing classroom in Reading Area Community College’s Weitz Healthcare Pavilion Thursday afternoon, he explained to the crowd gathered in front of him that Pennsylvania is the fifth most populous state in the nation. But when it comes to state funding for public higher education, it ranks 49th.

“Forty-nine is not good,” he said. “We have not invested what we need to in higher education. And it should be unacceptable to everyone in this commonwealth.”

The result is that many colleges and universities across the state are struggling, Shapiro said. Enrollments have dropped by more than 30%, while the cost to attend has risen.

“Too many of our colleges and universities, they’re really running on empty right now,” he said. “And not enough students have affordable pathways through college and to good jobs.”

Shapiro said he is dedicated to changing that. His administration has created a blueprint to remake public higher education in the state, and the governor has vowed to support that effort with historic levels of funding.

“I think Pennsylvanians deserve better than what they’ve gotten in our higher education system for too long,” he said.

The governor stopped by RACC Thursday to promote his plan, and to get a glimpse of a community college that is bucking the statewide trends despite the lack of state investment.

Shapiro called RACC an “example for the rest of the commonwealth,” saying the school’s enrollment numbers and affordability show the rest of the state what’s possible. He said that RACC has succeeded in helping to train the next generation of workers, pointing out that amid an ongoing healthcare worker shortage the school has 700 students on the waitlist for its nursing program.

“RACC is an example of the kind of place that is training the workers of today and tomorrow,” he said.

The governor’s blueprint for higher education aims to provide more support to Pennsylvania’s state colleges and universities, as well as its community colleges.

It calls for increased collaboration between schools, uniting the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools and community colleges under a new governance system. And it calls for a $975 million state investment in the new system.

The plan also aims to support students.

Shapiro is calling for a $1,000 increase in Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance state grants, raising the per-student grant from $5,750 to $6,750. He also wants to increase financial aid for students at PASHE schools or community colleges so that no students whose family is earning the state median income will pay more than $1,000 per semester.

State secretary of education Dr. Khalid Mumin — who formerly served as superintendent of the Reading School District — said the root of the plan is creating a system where students can feel in control of their own educations.

“Quite simply, by giving learners the ability to chart their own course we enable them to build their futures on their own terms,” he said. “By giving learners access to affordable post-secondary options aligned to workforce needs, we are providing them with infinite possibilities of success.”

“And that’s something that will better Pennsylvania and the nation, and for generations to come.”

Critics of Shapiro’s plan have said it lacks detail. On Thursday, the governor said that is by design.

He said members of his administration have been meeting with stakeholders across the state to get feedback on what to do and don’t want to see in a redesign. That included meetings held prior to Thursday’s press event with local government and education leaders.

Shapiro said that the information that is collected will be used to craft a final plan that will be ready by June so it can be included in the 2024-25 state budget.

The governor said that he is determined to get a plan enacted now, saying refusing to wait is unacceptable. That is in part because Pennsylvania finds itself in a flush financial situation.

The state currently has a $14 billion surplus. If the governor’s entire budget proposal is passed — including the higher education redesign — it will still have an $11 billion surplus, Shapiro said.

“We are in a unique position today to invest,” he said. “And I believe now is the time to invest in higher education. We can do it in a fiscally responsible way, we can do it in a way that preserves a large surplus so we’re ready for the challenges of tomorrow.”

RACC president Dr. Susan Looney opened Thursday’s press event by saying she is fully on board with the governor’s plan to support higher education.

“We look forward to supporting the governor’s plan to increase investment in the commonwealth’s public colleges and universities, which would help expand affordable access to great programs like the ones we offer here at Reading Area Community College,” she said. “This will allow us to continue building on the work we do for our students and for our community.”

Likewise, state Sen. Judy Schwank voiced her support of Shapiro’s plan, stressing the importance of public higher education.

“I’m a believer in public education,” she said. “Every student deserves the opportunity to chase their dreams and pursue their happiness.”

Schwank said that the state should be doing everything it can to support its students, but right now it’s not.

“It’s no secret that the higher education landscape needs to change for the commonwealth to thrive,” she said, calling a remake of the system “long overdue.”

Schwank said that too many schools are facing financial hardships, and too many students are either unable to afford a higher education or find themselves burdened with debt when they graduate.

“We should be doing better,” she said.

Like Shapiro, Schwank said the time to act is now.

“We can continue with the quo and watch as Pennsylvania falls further behind, or we can set out to build a system that meets the needs not only of our workforce but also the needs of our students and the communities we call home,” she said. “We all thrive if we can get this right.”

A pair of RACC students also spoke Thursday, telling their stories about how having access to an affordable, quality higher education opportunity is helping them to thrive.

Wilfri Pena came to the U.S. several years ago pursing a professional baseball career with the Washington Nationals. When his ballplaying days ended, he wound up in Berks County.

The Dominican Republic-born Pena said he found it difficult to move onto the next phase of his life — he wanted to pursue a career in healthcare — because of a language barrier.

“I couldn’t even have a simple conversation in English,” he said.

A friend suggested he check out RACC, where he enrolled in English as a second language courses. As he became more comfortable with the language, he entered and graduated from RACC’s licensed practical nursing program.

He currently works as a pediatric home care nurse, and will graduate this May from RACC’s registered nursing program.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it without all the amazing people here,” he said. “RACC is the best place to be.”

Like Pena, Jonathan Pensado also credits RACC for putting him on a path to success.

He has spent two years at the school, and is preparing to graduate from the communications program in May. After that, he’s head to either New York University or Yale to pursue a degree in international business.

Pensado said students like him, who have seen doors open to them thanks to schools like RACC, appreciate the governor’s efforts to support public education.

“You stand on the side of education,” he said. “You stand on the side of human rights.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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