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Pennsylvania needs to catch up on higher education [opinion]

Pennsylvania public university students pay more for higher education than almost anywhere else in the United States. Our state is the second worst in the nation, yes, 49th, in the amount of money the state provides toward public higher education.

Pennsylvania students average $6,100 from the state toward their undergraduate degree. The national average given to students elsewhere is $10,200. Average tuition for a Pennsylvania resident is $20,000, 70% more than the national average.

This high cost is enough to discourage many students from seeking a degree, it keeps older students from seeking new training, and employers in Pennsylvania suffer from this education drought.

How and why have the legislators in this state allowed our students, community colleges and four-year institutions suffer financially at this level? It must be easier to just pass the buck to the next legislative body that is elected, or the division between the parties is so great that they cannot come together and agree on a plan.

It is embarrassing to see all the statistics about higher education in Pennsylvania, from a community college two-year degree through doctoral programs at public universities, and realize our Senate and House have allowed Pennsylvania to slip to 49th in the nation in its investment in higher education. How did this government let one of its most important fiduciary responsibilities get to such a dire circumstance?

Gov. Josh Shapiro wants to attack this problem. He wants to create jobs and entice more people to Pennsylvania to work. Without the proper education, our residents will not be able to fill the jobs available because of lack of education and lack of ability to pay to attain it because the cost is so high in this state. We are losing people to other states and this is one of the reasons why.

Education beyond high school has never been more important in the lives of our young people and people who wish to attain certification or a degree to start a new career. For years, Pennsylvania legislators have let funding dwindle on this most important initiative.

The governor has called for more financial aid for low-income students who attend community colleges and state-owned universities, asking for a $279 million increase for students whose families earn $70,000 or less. They would pay no more than $1,000 per semester after all other scholarships sources are exhausted.

It is easy to see where most of the population is going within the state. Southeastern and northeastern Pennsylvania are growing, while the middle of the state is shrinking. Most of western Pennsylvania losing population as well, with the exception of Erie and several areas around Pittsburgh. This has implications for preK-12 schools, colleges and universities. These communities lack people to fill jobs or are losing jobs as the demographics continue in this direction.

We need an educated populace, whether that is certification to do a specific job or jobs, a two-year community college degree or an undergraduate or graduate diploma. Education is the difference-maker in people’s lives and the life of our commonwealth.

Shapiro wants to change the way we operate in Pennsylvania, opening more opportunities for training to many who cannot afford to pay for it now. Proposals call for additional funding to make college more affordable and a 15% boost in funding for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE (colleges such as West Chester, Millersville, Kutztown and Shippensburg). That does not include Penn State, Temple, Lincoln and Pittsburgh, state-related schools that are not part of PASSHE. The governor has proposed a 5% increase for them.

There is a performance-based component of this plan. State-owned colleges would receive funding for meeting certain benchmarks such as retention and graduation rates. It would reward colleges for keeping graduates in the state, which would address the “brain drain” we suffer when college graduates look out of state for jobs.

Who knows if the Senate and House will support this plan. If not this, what? Something needs to be done for the Pennsylvania system of higher education. Being 49th in the nation is not something to be proud of, and a solution must be found. This plan is a direct line to economic prosperity for the state and must be taken seriously.

Dr. Myra Forrest is a lifelong educator, former school superintendent and currently education advocate for the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation. 

Source: Berkshire mont

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