(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania higher education is crucial, costly and confusing.
So said state policymakers during a recent meeting with a trio of college leaders invited to share thoughts about the high cost of a degree and how the vision for higher education should look.
“The item that is driving the conversation, at least within our caucus, and driving the conversation in higher education is what we talked about here today,” Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, said during a House Republican Policy Committee hearing on Wednesday. “It’s not so much the cost of higher education as much as it is accountability in higher education.”
Kail said colleges have a perception problem and students struggle with debt, but “the institutions don’t seem to have accountability attached to them.” House Republicans want to “help in ways other than just throwing money at the situation.”
Leaders said they’re trying to prepare students for life with a sound economic footing.
“What we pride ourselves on is the ability to work very closely with business and industry to ensure that the programming that we offer aligns and supports the needs in our various communities,” Quintin Bullock, president of the Community College of Allegheny County, said.
“We do very well in nursing, we are one of the largest producers of nurses across the commonwealth,” Bullock said.
What a college focuses on can drive costs, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein said. A high-intensive music program, he noted, is much more expensive than a social science program.
Size matters, too. Larger institutions “can achieve a huge number of efficiencies,” he said.
The yardstick for what leaders want a college to accomplish also dictates cost.
“The question is, what are you interested in? Access … outcomes … jobs?” Greenstein asked. “If you’re looking at the true cost I would look at today … is the amount of money we’re spending on education per job at the other end.”
The policy goal and vision for a university, he noted, drives outcomes.
“Absent some alignment on what you’re actually looking for with respect to public dollars and higher education, it might be hard to get the results you need,” Greenstein said.
Legislators said taxpayers should know how colleges spend taxpayer money, too. Greenstein agreed with the sentiment, but demurred on answering whether state-related universities should be held to the same transparency and accountability standards.
Funding for the state-related Penn State University, Temple University, University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln University has been a more-contentious issue in recent years. Leaders from those institutions asked for more state support, but wouldn’t agree to a tuition freeze in return.
The state-run college system, however, has frozen tuition rates for the last five years. Lawmakers approved a budget with a 6% funding boost, or an additional $33 million, for the system over the summer.
“As a taxpayer, I think you should be asking all of us to be very transparent about every penny we’re spending,” Greenstein said.