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Lawmakers consider how to measure the success of Pennsylvania’s taxpayer-funded universities

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
March 1, 2024

Leaders of Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities, which receive state tax dollars but operate with minimal government oversight, said Thursday they’re supportive of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s call for a performance-based approach to determining their funding.

The University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln, Penn State and Temple universities received $603.5 million from the state in this year’s budget with the state Legislature’s proviso that each must hold tuition level in the next academic year. 

Shapiro’s budget proposal for 2024-25 would increase funding for the universities by $30 million or 5% and distribute the money through a performance-based formula that rewards them for achieving positive outcomes. A 15% increase for Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities would be distributed through a similar formula, Shapiro’s proposal said.

Asked by state Rep. Regina Young (D-Philadelphia) their feelings on Shapiro’s metrics for the based-funding formula, the chancellors and presidents of the state-related schools said that while they are short on details, performance-based funding is generally a good practice in higher education. 

The metrics should be simple, flexible and reflect the mission of each of the institutions, Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi said. She added that they tend to be focused on student outcomes. “What do you want for the citizens of the Commonwealth and for the workforce needs and the development of the Commonwealth itself?” 

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Joan Gabel said that in her experience the performance- based systems that have the fewest unintended consequences are those developed collaboratively with the legislature and that represent the different goals of families, students and the state. 

“I think that gives us our best shot, and we would be very much in support of that,” Gabel said.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) asked Lincoln University President Brenda Allen about performance-based budgeting and how it works for historically Black colleges and universities, such as Lincoln.

“When you think about a Temple student versus Lincoln student, and you think about what performance looks like …what could be different that if we measure it incorrectly could have a negative impact?”

Allen, who previously worked under a funding formula as a provost at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, said that tracking “absolute values” becomes a problem when measuring the performance of HBCUs. 65% of Lincoln’s student body comes from financially disadvantaged families, Allen said.

“I’m not going to have the same retention rate as Temple or Pitt or Penn State, where they have a large percentage of students where finance is not going to be the thing that’s going to interrupt their education,” Allen said, adding that if a funding formula takes into account the diversity of schools, its predictability is a benefit. 

Restructuring higher education in Pennsylvania is one of the main initiatives of Shapiro’s budget. 

In addition to performance-based grants for the state related universities, Shapiro has called for the unification of the 10 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities with the state’s 15 community colleges under a common governance structure. 

Tuition for low- and moderate-income students would be capped at $1,000 per semester and Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants for students attending private institutions would be increased by $1,000.

Shapiro’s “blueprint for higher education in Pennsylvania” is based on the work of a Higher Education Working Group of university leaders Shapiro appointed to develop recommendations.

Republican lawmakers have criticized Shapiro’s higher education reform plan for lacking detail and requiring what Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), the ranking GOP member of the House Appropriations Committee, called “massive and unsustainable spending increases.”

“The bottom line is this plan creates more bureaucracy, necessitates more spending, and creates more questions than answers,” Grove said in a statement last month. “The House Republican position on education, from PreK to College, is simple: fund students, not institutions.”

In a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on education Wednesday, state Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Montgomery) noted that while public funding for higher education is proposed to increase, enrollment at PASSHE universities has declined significantly. Pennycuick asked Education Secretary Khalid Mumin to consider prioritizing career and technical education over funding universities.

“That’s what’s going to grow our economy. That philosophy degree, maybe not so much,” Pennycuick said.

Mumin said that as a member of the “college or bust” generation, whose members took on significant debt to pay for a degree, he recognizes that attitudes about higher education have changed. 

“We all are still carrying heavy debt. That is part of this focus of this blueprint, affordability, access,” Mumin said before Pennycuick interrupted, saying that higher education funding should go directly to students and their families instead of systems. 

That, Pennycuick said, would empower students to choose an education that provides marketable skills, adding that those who want to go to college but can’t afford it have other options.

“You can get college for free. Join the Army. … Three of my four children … did just that. So there are ways that poor inner city, black, brown, whatever. They can go to school for free. Join the military, join the National Guard,” Pennycuick, who is an Army veteran and earned a degree while serving the U.S. Army Reserve, said. Pennycuick has introduced a number of bills relating to education and military service.

Pennycuick’s comment drew criticism from a number of Democrats and Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee spokesperson Abhi Rahman denounced it in a statement about the committee’s campaign to secure majorities in both chambers of the Pennsylvania Legislature as “racist, disgusting language” that “highlights how out of touch the Republican Party is with the real needs of Pennsylvania families.”

“Racist ideas like the one spouted by Sen. Pennycuick create dangerous policies that hurt communities trying to live the American dream. The stakes couldn’t be higher for keeping Republican extremism at bay, which is why electing Democrats to the state legislature is critical,” Rahman said.

During Thursday’s House Appropriations committee hearing on Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt and Temple, Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford), the ranking Republican member of the House
Education Committee, asked the university heads if they measured how many graduates work in the field in which they earned their degrees and whether that would be a way to measure their schools’ performance.

Gabel replied that the U.S. Department of Labor tracks statistics on the jobs that people with certain college degrees have but whether a person works in the industry associated with their degree isn’t necessarily a measure of a successful college education.

”As a philosophy major myself who’s clearly not doing what I went to school for … there are certain majors that … lead into very specific careers that have very little to do with what you signed up to actually study,” Gabel said.

Allen, the president of Lincoln, said that while some majors, such as nursing and teaching are in demand, the economic sectors where demand is high changes over time. Because keeping the workforce in Pennsylvania is a high priority, it’s also important to track whether college students are trained for the jobs that are available when they graduate, Allen said.

“Making sure there’s an opportunity to capture both of those pathways I think is going to be really important and a funding formula,” Allen said.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.