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Guest Opinion

Push higher ed collaboration, not unification


I write with a sense of urgency and profound concern regarding Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposal for “systemization that unites” the PASSHE (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) four-year college system with our esteemed local community colleges in pursuit of an admirable goal of achieving $1,000 per semester tuition costs for a four-year degree in families earning $70,000 or less.

While the aim of making higher education more affordable is most commendable, I fear that the governor accepted an ill-advised “blueprint” approach, which overlooks fundamental issues plaguing our current systems.

Instead of addressing the root causes of inefficiency and aligning educational and financial processes across all our higher education institutions, including the state-related universities, there is a misguided push towards centralization under a unified system.

The governor needs to make clear that he just seeks resolution of our challenges. If we want an educated workforce, in health care or technology, for example — our commonwealth must reinvigorate our current independent institutions with entrepreneurial zeal, wise new investments and prudent use of taxpayer dollars.

The good news is that our governor understands it is unsustainable to just keep charging students more and more if we want an educated workforce.

It would be disheartening to witness the potential sacrifice of our highly successful and impactful community colleges at the altar of bureaucratic consolidation. The emphasis so far seems to be on determining governance structures rather than exploring the avenues to remove bureaucratic hurdles, designing inter-relationships, and streamlining funding mechanisms, which could substantially lower the costs of higher education and benefits all of our students.

Further, the unavoidable and difficult challenges ahead for every institution will be declining enrollments, maintaining financial integrity after enduring pandemic fallout and a changing demand and expectations surrounding academic credentials.

At this critical juncture, we must prioritize collaboration, not unification. There exist viable means for all our Pennsylvania institutions to collaborate and coordinate efficiently while preserving local accountability, particularly at the community college level.

Pennsylvania has only 15 community colleges which are locally sponsored and controlled. Most overachieve in their communities because they are singularly focused on local market needs.

Systemization will erode these local achievements and capabilities.

Collaboration could easily provide a path enabling PASSHE and the state-related institutions to focus on those counties which have not been able to afford local sponsorships so that all Pennsylvanians have equal higher education opportunities.

In the early ‘60s, the Pennsylvania Legislature demonstrated visionary leadership by enabling locally governed community colleges with a clear mission to serve their local communities without succumbing to a state system approach.

This entrepreneurial spirit has propelled Pennsylvania community colleges to national recognition for excellence in workforce development, online and distance learning, academic success, and local accountability and service achievement.

In many states, governors have successfully implemented programs providing free community college education, emphasizing the importance of localized impact. Each of these states left its own unique higher education structures in place.

Let us follow suit and prioritize such initiatives. One fact remains true: community colleges continue to be the most cost effective form of delivery. That is recognized nationally.

Let us redirect our focus towards achieving efficiencies through local accountabilities with a collaboration agreement rather than perpetrating a cumbersome statewide bureaucracy that could well stifle innovation, preclude agility and hinder progress.

Removing duplicative and unnecessarily competitive complexities while preserving the best elements of our current institutional structures will best maximize the state’s investments. The local sponsor formula for community colleges does need to be revisited; however, it is absolutely essential that community colleges have complete accountability to their sponsors and their local communities.

I urge the governor, our state legislators, our local county leaders and the wider community to remove the troubling cloud of unification while prioritizing collaboration strategies to empower all our Pennsylvania institutions while ensuring accessibility and affordability for all students.

I suggest the governor’s intent is really “to just do the right things right.”

Blake H. Eisenhart has been a member of the board of trustees at Bucks County Community College since 1986.

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