Seismic Shift in Higher Education: Pennsylvania’s Bold New Plan Towards Accessibility and Affordability

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HARRISBURG, PA — Governor Josh Shapiro recently unveiled an ambitious plan, introduced as SB 1248 and HB 2398 by Senator Jay Costa and Representative Peter Schweyer. This groundbreaking initiative pivots on the principles of affordability, accessibility, and economic development and builds upon the Governor’s earlier proposed Blueprint for Higher Education.

Governor Shapiro insists that all Pennsylvanians deserve the chance to determine their own futures and attain a level of prosperity that makes for an enriching life. He further remarked, “This higher education plan presents genuine opportunities for our students by reinvesting in education, reducing the cost of attaining higher degrees, and incentivizing our colleges and universities to cater to the pressing workforce needs of our Commonwealth.”

The new legislation, brought forth by Senator Costa and Representative Schweyer, encompasses three core strategies to ameliorate the challenges thwarting the higher education sector. Firstly, the plan proposes the establishment of a State Board of Higher Education aimed at enhancing coordination among colleges and universities to boost accessibility, fill vital workforce gaps and prepare students for the jobs that Pennsylvania sorely needs – all while preserving local control.

Secondly, it suggests substantial investment in publicly funded institutions, empowering them to fully realize their potential through a transparent, predictable funding model that aligns state funds with the Commonwealth’s needs.

Lastly, it champions increased affordability, asserting that Pennsylvanians with an income up to the median should not have to pay more than $1,000 in tuition and fees per semester at state-owned universities and community colleges. Furthermore, the plan also promises to boost the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) state grants by $1,000 for those from families with a median income, escalating the maximum award from $5,750 to $6,750 in FY2025-26.

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Senator Costa shared his pride in introducing this Higher Education legislative package that fulfills Governor Shapiro’s vision as outlined in his budget address. Representative Schweyer echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the necessity of college education without crippling debt and the importance of formulating policies that further this objective.

The need for such an initiative is underscored by sobering statistics. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) ranks Pennsylvania as one of the least affordable states for higher education, with nearly no four-year institutions and only 18% of two-year institutions being affordable for low- and moderate-income families.

These financial constraints have consequently led to a drastic drop in enrollment in Pennsylvania’s colleges and universities, with a 30% reduction in PASSHE enrollment and total community college enrollment plummeting by 37% in the past decade.

A significant job market gap has also emerged as a result of the decreasing number of Pennsylvanians with high-quality degrees or credentials, thereby creating a deficit of skilled professionals in vital sectors like nursing and mental health. The gap, currently standing at 61,000, is projected to widen to an alarming 210,000 within a decade without decisive intervention.

Governor Shapiro envisions his education blueprint as a catalyst for change by lowering costs, increasing college attainment, and bridging workforce gaps. The plan, crafted after receiving extensive feedback from higher education leaders across the Commonwealth, seeks to empower students to dictate their own futures and seize opportunities to succeed.

Cynthia Shapira, Chair of the PASSHE Board of Governors, praised the plan, highlighting its potential to transform students’ lives. Quintin Bullock, President of the Community College of Allegheny County, and Richard M. Englert, President of Temple University, echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the significance of the plan in accommodating the Commonwealth’s burgeoning workforce needs and aligning higher education strategies across the state.

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Overall, this ambitious plan by Governor Shapiro signals a new era for higher education in Pennsylvania, one that prioritizes affordability, accessibility, and economic development. The potential implications are immense, with the promise of transforming individual lives and setting the Commonwealth on a path of increased competitiveness and growth.

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