Thursday, February 13, 2020

Farther, faster

This month we are asking the PA General Assembly to choose―to choose whether or not all Pennsylvanians will have access to affordable career-relevant college education that is critical to the economic health and well-being of this Commonwealth.

The ask is supported with detailed analysis of the contributions that State System universities make today to this Commonwealth, to its employers, and most important of all, to our students. The contributions―revealed in our first ever State System appropriations request and accountability report and dashboard―are strong, and there is so much promise going forward. But our strength, our potential, is also threatened by years of neglect on the part of the Commonwealth, which for too long has chosen to underfund public higher education.

But we too, are party to that neglect―not owing to incompetence or negligence or mal-intent. On the contrary, I am every day impressed by the quality, talent, commitment and good intent of our faculty and staff. Still, for whatever reason, we have been slow to evolve in ways that enable us to meet the dramatically changing needs of our students, their employers, our communities and the state. And we have been slow to address the practical financial challenges that result from long-running structural changes in the demographic and political economy of Pennsylvania higher education.

So we too must choose, and as with the General Assembly, we must choose now. Delay is not an option. Our failure to work together with one another in charting our own path will only result in a future that none of us wants – that none of us would choose.

Some examples of the choices we must make are presented here―enumerated so you can leap to any that capture your attention.
  1. Financial sustainability 
  2. Investing in community college transfer students’ success
  3. Online undergraduate education
  4. Adult education

1. Financial sustainability

Just yesterday, I circulated a memorandum to the presidents instructing the adoption of several immediate actions that will enable us to align our costs with our current and anticipated enrollment, thereby ensuring that we:

  • reduce anticipated debt-levels that, if left unattended, will impact our ability to serve our students;
  • ensure that unrestricted net assets are used to invest in strategic and growth opportunities rather than to balance annual operating budgets;
  • minimize university reliance on furloughs and retrenchment as a means of achieving financial sustainability; and ultimately
  • expand educational opportunities so we continue to meet the rapidly changing needs of our students, their employers, and our communities.

At 30,000 feet, the problem those actions seek to address is not a complicated one. Our student FTE (enrollments) are down by 20% since 2010 and our staff and faculty FTE are down by only 7%. Not a good pattern if it persists for too long in an industry where 75% of all operating costs are tied up in salary and benefits. This pattern became unsustainable years ago, but until now we have not had the courage to address it.

Additionally, we know we can’t credibly ask the General Assembly to subsidize cost imbalances that we are unable or unwilling to address. Nor can we continue to heap the burden of those imbalances onto our students in the form of routine increases in the price of tuition, fees, room and board. Our students are drawn disproportionately from low- and middle-income families. They should be. That’s what public higher education is all about. But enrollment trends tell us what we already know―our low- and middle-income students can’t afford annual increases in net average price of attendance (tuition, fees, room, and board) that travel in multiples of the rate of inflation.

So we choose to act. To align our expenditures with current and anticipated enrollment levels. A lot of my time, personally, is spent here because the opportunity to realize any of our hopes and dreams for the future requires that we navigate through this thorny thicket. It represents our greatest and most immediate challenge. It forces us to:
  • shift our thinking and operations fundamentally;
  • embrace changes in the design and delivery of our educational programming and the student supports that are associated with it;
  • engage a 14-university approach to sustaining low-enrolled universities that are vital to the health and well-being of the Commonwealth, but are challenged at today’s enrollments to offer the breadth of educational programs their students and communities need.
System Redesign and its sharing system vision were designed for specific reasons. They are below.

Realizing the vision for the good of the Commonwealth? That’s a choice.

2. Investing in community college transfer students’ success

I’ve heard a great deal in recent weeks about the Pennsylvania community colleges’ transfer agreement with Southern New Hampshire University.

It’s more noise than signal: sycophantic fawning over disruption (apparently an end itself); further prognostications from higher education death watchers (an emerging cottage industry); countless offers of help and support. But very few facts and no critical analysis. Call me old fashioned, but those things matter to me. And they should matter to us.

The number of community college students who transfer to a PA State System university tracks more or less with community college enrolments. Both are down over 13% since 2013. State System university transfers are down a tad more―around 16%―as a result of a strong economy that is drawing community college graduates into the job market rather than back into the classroom. But the pattern is not uniform. Several State System universities are actually enrolling a higher proportion of transfer students. I’ll return to those in a moment.

The State System has robust transfer articulation agreements in place with community colleges and a System policy that requires universities to adhere to them. As a result, State System universities accept 93% of the credits presented by community college transfer students―that’s a lot. Credits that aren’t accepted are for courses that don’t exist in any way, shape, or form at the host university or for which the transfer student received an unacceptably low grade. That sort of thing doesn’t matter at every university, but it does for ours and it should. Unless you’re a degree mill, quality matters. It should.

Transfer students are good students who are well prepared academically. They graduate at a slightly higher rate than students who begin as freshmen at a State System university.

Could we do more? Yes.

We could (and we should) work even more closely with our community college partners to facilitate students’ progress along the transfer pathways we have already established for them and ensure junior standing for those who have earned an AA or an AS degree in an aligned program, including but not limited to, the statewide 30-credit framework and P2P (Program to Program) agreements.

We could (and we should) be willing to waive on-campus residency requirements when they place obstacles in the path of a transfer student. Yes, there’s a cost. Residential students engage more in the life of the university and have higher retention and graduation rates. But the net price of attendance for a residential student is higher than for a non-residential student, an insurmountable obstacle for many.

We could (and we should) work more closely with our community college colleagues not only to ensure that transfer articulation agreements are robustly maintained, but also that intending transfer students receive the financial aid and academic and other advising supports they need all along the way from college to university.

We could (and we should) do more to act like we care about transfer students (we do care); to make them feel wanted (they are wanted); to help them engage in our communities and ease their progress along a journey that is a difficult one for many.

How do we know what we could (and should) do? Because there’s already a transfer playbook that has been built upon evidence and case study. And because we have numerous examples of what “great” looks like, including at universities in our System―universities that, by the way, implement aspects of the playbook and are enrolling an ever-growing share of community college transfer students.

So… what to do? Well, that’s another choice. Me? I’m for addressing the obvious unmet of these students. Now. You know. Like #PAPreferred.

3. Online undergraduate education

How many Pennsylvanians do you think enroll each year in an online undergraduate program offered by an out-of-state university? Nearly 43,000. Closing in on half of our enrollments. That’s 43,000 Pennsylvanians choosing a big box retail-style education provider rather than a Pennsylvania institution.

My use of “big box,” by the way, isn’t intended as a slight. Big box retail plays an important role in every sector. I get my bike parts almost exclusively from one big box retailer in the consumer space.

And I am absolutely enamored of a rack of lamb available exclusively from another. As with consumer sales, there are a few big box retail-style education providers that have the largest online market share in terms of their enrollments: In alphabetical order, they are Arizona State, Liberty University, Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Phoenix, and Western Governor’s University. Their successes are illuminating, and we can (and we should) learn from them.

We learn that a large and growing number of Pennsylvania undergraduates want an affordable online option. Oh. Did I fail to mention that our on-ground and online tuition is equal to or lower than nearly all the out-of-state providers?

We learn that Pennsylvanians who enroll in online undergraduate education disproportionately enroll in business, nursing, and education. Hmm. Sound familiar? It should. Business, healthcare, and education (along with STEM) are our highest-enrolled programs, accounting for nearly half our students.

Another helpful factoid. Most online students prefer to enroll in programs offered by universities within 100 miles of their home. This makes sense for a number of reasons, including the connectivity to workforce opportunities that are inevitably more available from a community-based institution.

So how many undergraduate programs do we offer fully online in the State System? A bunch. But they are under-leveraged, and except for a handful of programs in business and nursing, not as aligned as they could be to student demand.

Another choice.

4. Adult education

The size of Pennsylvania’s high school-leaving population declined 4.5% between 2012 and 2018. After a period of modest growth, it will go over a cliff in 2025, projected to lose 9% over ten years. In the meantime, there is a rising need for more adult education―not necessarily for degree granting education (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s degrees)―although there is need for that too―but for various non-degree credentials in areas of business, healthcare, STEM, and education in which we have real strength. In today’s job market, people need constantly to upskill and re-skill in these areas.

How many non-degree, working-adult-oriented credentialing programs do we offer? Honestly, I can’t tell you. We don’t bother to count them all that well at the System level.

Those days are over. From today forward, we count them.

Growing them? Well. That is yet another choice.

Change is hard.

I understand that.

I understand, too, why change is slow not just in Pennsylvania but in US public higher education generally.

Look, for years―even decades―students showed up every fall and filled our course sections. Public appropriations materialized every summer from the state, and even as per-student public funding declined, the impacts were mitigated initially by enrollment growth (through 2010/11), then through basic recession management techniques. Sure, there were hard times, but we lived on the strategy of hope―hope that next year would bring a bumper crop of student enrollments; a richer state budget.

Operating for decades in these modes bred a sense of entitlement, even hubris. Frankly, it invited the big box retailer-style education providers into our state, offered them an opportunity to eat the lunch we had prepared and then left unattended on the table while we were out by the pool basking in the sun.

Party’s over.

So, together with the General Assembly, we must choose. This year.

You know I am an irrepressible optimist. We can and we will address these changes, and we will do it with creative intelligence, energy, and with empathy and compassion for one another.

We will look forward, not backward. Work together, not alone. Act from trust, not from enmity. In time and through our successes we will learn to let go of the hurt and animosity and blame that continue to show up in some places to negatively influence our culture.

How do I know? Because every day I see us doing exactly that. In ways small and large, but all of them profound, and to me, very moving.

I see it amongst faculty and staff who are brimming with creative ideas about how to share in educational programs, to better support our students, to engage more effectively with employers who want to work more effectively with us.

I see it in thoughtful, constructive, and collegial dialog with leadership of our faculty union, APSCUF, with whom we have a shared understanding of and a profound commitment to the “why” of our change journey. In my personal experience, those discussions touch strategically on the what and where, and tactically on the how.

I see it in our university leadership—in their thoughtful and analytically driven university strategies and budgets; their willingness to roll up sleeves and help one another; their openness to adopting collaborative approaches to individual institutional challenges; their energy for change leadership; their collegiality with one another; and their thought partnership with me.

I see it in the engagement of our Trustees and our Board of Governors—their passion for our purpose, and their stewardship of our universities, our System, their communities. In looking forward to testifying in front of the Appropriations Committees of the General Assembly, I am struck by the nature and extent of our partnership with the Commonwealth.

The State System universities play a critical role as an engine of economic development and social mobility in this state. But to realize the full extent of our promise to Pennsylvania, the General Assembly and the State System must choose—together, in partnership.

The General Assembly’s choice has to do with investment of public funds, ours with fundamental transformation of our education and business models.

Neither choice can be made alone, without the other.

Hold hands. Count to three. And jump together into the future―the future that the citizens of this Commonwealth demand and deserve.