The 31-member Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education created by Gov. Tom Corbett has embarked on its exploration into Pennsylvania’s higher education system. It is charged with developing a long-term vision to coming up with a way to meet the needs of students, taxpayers and future employers in the coming decades.
While several panel members said the need for this time of forward-thinking about higher education is long overdue, it also became apparent that funding concerns are driving this conversation. So is a desire to see post-secondary institutions step up their use of technology to educate students.
“We really are, in my opinion, on the precipice of a whole new way of doing things,” Corbett said. “It’s going to require us to think differently. It’s going to require us to fund differently, and that frankly is one of the other areas of why we brought you here.”
Corbett has shown his dislike of the rising costs of higher education in the two budgets he has submitted to the Legislature since taking office last year. Both called for drastic cuts in funding for the state-supported universities as well as a slight cut in funding for the state grant program.
But he told the panel and its chair, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce CEO Rob Wonderling, that he has no preconceived notion of what he wants them to recommend.
“The purpose of this commission is to try and chart the landscape and to try to make some recommendations to us,” Corbett said in a brief news conference after some welcoming remarks.
He emphasized relying on technology to deliver education and stirring students’ interest in pursuing education in technical trades. He said employers he has visited have said they need welders and electricians. Meanwhile, colleges are churning out 12,000 teachers a year for 3,000 jobs.
“Hopefully, they’ll take a look at that,” Corbett said.
As panel members shared a different perspective on Corbett’s focus on funding.
“I do think the funding issues are critical and will prove critical as we move ahead,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson said, “The grand challenge for higher education is to figure out how to improve student learning outcomes and student success and at the same time, determine how to deliver that education at rates of cost increase that are lower than we’ve experienced over the past decade or two.”
James Preston, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, said his biggest concern over the decrease in government funding for higher education is the loans that students take out to make up the difference. He said nationally, student loan debt is about $1 trillion.
“That’s too much,” Preston said. “To me, that just something we have to keep in mind.”
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