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Gov. Shapiro offers new details of higher ed plan in Pittsburgh, but questions remain

  • Oliver Morrison/WESA
Gov. Josh Shapiro gets a tour of a technical classroom at CCAC from Michael Rinsem, the endowed professor for technical curriculum.

 Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Gov. Josh Shapiro gets a tour of a technical classroom at CCAC from Michael Rinsem, the endowed professor for technical curriculum.

In a visit to Pittsburgh Tuesday, Governor Josh Shapiro began to flesh out the details of his blueprint for a new higher education system in Pennsylvania.

Last month Shapiro announced his plan to combine Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities and community colleges under one umbrella. The state would also provide additional financial aid for students, limiting tuition for middle-income students to $1,000 per semester.

Details about that proposal, which Shapiro unveiled as part of his annual budget, have been scarce. But at the North Side campus of the Community College of Allegheny County on Tuesday, deputy secretary of education Kate Shaw released an 11-page informational bulletin with additional details about Shaprio’s plan.

Shaw said her department has been holding a series of meetings to figure out how to make the blueprint a reality. She has already met with 30 state legislators, 40 presidents of small colleges and an advisory group of 25 community college leaders, as well as some business and labor leaders.

“We have been working hard to make sure that as we put meat on the bones of this blueprint, our thinking is informed by everybody that has a vested interest in the well-being of our higher education sector,” she said.

Some of the new details to emerge concern the timing of the plan. Shapiro said he is asking the legislature to fund a 15% increase in higher education funding this year to build out the new higher education system. Next year, he said, he will come back to the legislature to ask for additional funds to pay for student financial aid.

The new bulletin states that an additional $1,000 in financial aid will be available to any student whose family earns around $70,000 or less, on top of the $5,750 grants they are now eligible for. While Shapiro’s plan aims prevent their tuition from exceeding $1,000 per semester, it would not cap the ability of these universities to raise their tuition, which more affluent students would have to pay.

The proposal comes as CCAC and community colleges across the state have on average lost more than a third of their enrollment. Shapiro said these drops are due to a generation of disinvestment, as Pennsylvania ranks 49th in funding for higher education and college graduates leave with more than $40,000 in debt.

“We’ve seen too many young people and too many others choose not to go to our state system or our community colleges,” he said. “By investing in the historic rates that I’m proposing, we are going to be in a position to grow enrollment again in Pennsylvania.”

Right now, Shapiro said some Pennsylvania community college students are moving out of state because their credits transfer more easily and its more affordable elsewhere. He gave the example of a journeyman carpenter who earned two degrees at CCAC. The carpenter ended up attending Rowan University in New Jersey because that school accepted most of his credits and offered him additional financial incentives.

“Think about that for a minute,” Shapiro said. “A Western Pennsylvania native going to school here at CCAC had to go all the way to Jersey just to find a program and a school that was right for him, where all the pieces fit together.

Shapiro’s higher education funding would come with strings attached: He is developing a funding formula that would provide incentives for colleges and universities “to meet critical state workforce needs, improve graduation rates, and reduce time to degree, among other important outcomes.” The funding formula would also be adjusted to fit the unique needs of each institution.

Shapiro’s plan will require support from both Democrats in the House and Republicans who control the Senate. And the blueprint has already been met with some skepticism from Republicans who say that the devil is in the details.

“In terms of combining the community college and the state system, I’m not against it and I’m not for it because I need to see how it’d work,” Rep. Jesse Topper, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee told the Washington Examiner.

A number of questions remain. The new bulletin states that Shapiro’s plan will save money by creating redundancies, but it’s not clear how, as the plan also says that no individual institutions will be merged. Pennsylvania just finished the process of merging six state universities into two regional systems.

Shapiro’s new bulletin says that local governing boards will not be eliminated at CCAC and other colleges in the state, although “exactly how local governance will function under a new system is yet to be determined.” Similarly, Shapiro’s administration says union contracts will be honored but the details have to be worked out.

A variety of CCAC alumni-turned-politicians showed up Tuesday to support Shapiro, including state Sens. Jim Brewster, Jay Costa and Wayne Fontana, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

Costa joked that he had a little bit too much fun when he was a student at CCAC and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but that they were affordable and he learned how to educate himself. Costa said a new generation of students needs help to make that a reality for them as well.

This plan proposes to be a seamless transition for folks coming out of high school to community college [and] the state system,” he said.

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