Thursday, February 18, 2021

Facts are Stubborn Things

Let me open with some observations—five sets of facts—each verifiable with data because facts still matter.

1. Affordable, career-relevant, postsecondary education is an engine of social mobility and economic development, and it is essential to the future of this Commonwealth.

2. To meet its workforce needs, Pennsylvania must increase from nearly 50% to nearly 60% the number of adults with some postsecondary education. Right now, PA higher education is shrinking in the number of newly credentialed people it produces annually.

3. We cannot achieve the level of necessary economic growth without doing better on behalf of those who have been underserved historically—low-income and rural students, students of color, adults looking to reskill and upskill to remain relevant in the job market.

4. Our State System universities are central to the Commonwealth’s future:

a. They are still the most affordable postsecondary option in the state and offer a high-touch experience for students to engage with great faculty.
b. Our students graduate at rates that beat our national comparator groups from degree programs that align directly with workforce needs, and the vast majority get good jobs in-state.
c. Our universities are the cultural and economic lifeblood of the communities and regions in which they are located.

5. The State System is challenged—some of its universities deeply so:

a. Over the past decade, we have lost 21% of our enrollments, and—because we have not yet adjusted cost structures, and because the state is 47th in the nation in terms of public expenditure on higher ed—we are severely challenged financially.
b. As schools shrink, some struggle to offer the full range of programs required by their students and their regions and are exhausting scarce financial reserves to balance budgets rather than strategically investing to expand opportunity.
c. We’ve done well historically with respect to student access and outcomes, topping universities in our comparator groups. But our edge has slipped as our peer institutions— many not better served financially than we are—show greater agility strengthening supports they offer their students, strengthening connections with schools and community colleges, and tapping into new student markets.

Our System Redesign—begun nearly four years ago—addresses these challenges directly and comprehensively and positions our universities for the growth the Commonwealth requires. System Redesign recognizes the path we were on is unsustainable; that the students and communities we serve demand and deserve that we evolve, as we have done for well over a century, to remain as relevant to the students of tomorrow as we have been to those of the past. System Redesign draws upon our collective creativity and is showing signs of promise and progress even in the wake of this pandemic, and these are worth keeping front and center as we approach what will arguably be the hardest parts of our work. Together these signs show that, well, despite our doubts and fears and the countless alternate reality narratives that swirl about in our hyper-connected and polarized political culture, we can rise above, remember our better angels, and work together to create a brighter future.

With that as a backdrop, here are a few additional observations:

Responding as a System

I was profoundly saddened recently to read that higher education nationally has lost about 13% of its employees since February 2020 (from The Great Contraction ( The impacts are more or less the same in the public and private sectors and appear to be most severe at institutions that were financially weak (as we were) entering the pandemic. We are no more in a protective bubble or immune from challenges sweeping the nation than any other institution. And yes, we too will suffer losses. 

But, because we started several years ago charting our path back to financial sustainability as a prelude to growth, we are looking at around 11% in reductions over three years, not 13% over one year. We also have tools that other institutions may not. Given the runway we created and the demographic profile of our employees, we are using retirement incentives to cushion the blow. Additionally, we have an opportunity to work as a system, finding roles for employees who are displaced. In short, we have a chance of weathering this storm like few others—aligning our costs with our revenues so we can put our precious few investment dollars to work in innovation, not in just making payroll while fending off insolvency.

Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As part of System Redesign, the Board of Governors emphasized its commitment to the success of ALL students and, thus, to an agenda driving diversity, equity, and inclusion. It did this in deeds as well as in words and to that end set out some five or six years ago to hire people committed to these ends. While the Board’s reach in this regard extends only to the Chancellor and presidents, its influence goes far beyond. The strategy and budget planning process and related accountability framework the Board established were built to drive performance improvement in these areas, much as its appointments were made to engender leadership commitment to them.

University leaders, meantime, built their own teams pursuing personal commitment and passion, while responding and in turn driving the Board’s directives. Today, each university and the System office include specific voices at the leadership table advocating for student success and for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And yes, through countless department-based, university-based, and even multi-campus efforts—Frederick Douglass Institutes as an example—leadership’s emphasis resonates productively with organically grown staff and faculty-led efforts.

As a result, we are seeing progress in an area that is arguably the hardest to impact. And while I am humbled at the size of the mountain we have yet to climb, I am confident in our potential to reach the summit.
  • Enrollment of under-represented minority (URM) students has grown from 12.5% to 20% in the last decade. We currently enroll proportionately more under-represented minorities than are present in the Commonwealth. East Stroudsburg University, reflecting its region and mission, has nearly doubled URM enrollments to 44%.
  • We are improving URM student success and closing attainment gaps. Fall 2020 saw nearly 5% improvement in URM student persistence—double the improvement for all students. For Shippensburg University, it marked the fourth successive year of improvement.
  • Our progress diversifying our employee base is too slow, but there are still points of light. Universities’ administrative leadership (think “deans and above”) are 20% non-white, which is equal to the proportion of under-represented minorities in our student body and the state. What’s more, West Chester University has nearly doubled the proportion of non-white faculty to 26%.
  • Cheyney University—the nation’s first (and thus oldest) historically black university—is getting back on track. In the last couple of years, it added 50% to its enrollments, doubled its student retention, and increased the six-year graduation rate by 10%. It also cleared its debt to the System, got on a path to balanced budgeting, and secured its accreditation. That’s a lot to say grace over. And it has pursued a partnership model that will provide students with an expansive array of opportunities, far larger than one would expect of a university with fewer than 1,000 enrollments. Just the other day, I received pictures of Cheyney students working in Wistar lab, courtesy of one such innovative partnership.

To be sure, there is more to this story about
  • burgeoning effectiveness of student multi-cultural and LGBTQ centers and mentoring programs;
  • the free speech project at IUP, which fosters courageous conversations;
  • diversity training that is now mandatory for all our students, faculty, and staff across the System; and
  • a systemwide incident reporting mechanism and response teams available to students and employees who might experience racist and other hate-based remarks and actions.

None of this happened overnight. None of this results from diffidence or dumb luck. None of this is the responsibility of any one or even several people. This kind of progress requires an intentional, all-hands approach amongst students, faculty, staff, trustees, and board members who are sleeves-rolled-up, deeply engaged in this work. To so many of you, I offer a huge thanks. Your efforts are not as fully acknowledged as they ought to be. With enormous humility, I admire your passion, your commitment, your work, and your successes. During my time overseeing philanthropic investments in equity-oriented initiatives in U.S. higher education, it was not uncommon to see numbers turn ever so slightly upward—we called it a “hockey stick effect” in the data. And like a hockey stick, the shape continued to curve ever more sharply upwards at institutions that demonstrated the grit, determination, and tenacity necessary to integrate student-oriented innovation into the fabric of their practice. May the trends we are seeing now represent yet another hockey stick effect...this one in Pennsylvania.

Institutional Integrations and Beyond

We’ve heard a great deal about institutional integrations these past several weeks in response to a progress report presented to our Board of Governors and the General Assembly. The report reflects creative and courageous work of around a thousand students, faculty, and staff at six universities who are working together to plan a future for our students and their communities in the western and northeastern parts of the state. It’s heady and exciting stuff that promises to preserve identity (in name, traditions, sports teams, etc.) while portending transformation in order to aggressively expand opportunities—to offer all students a greater range of educational programs, to double down on affordability, improve student outcomes, reduce attainment gaps, expand partnerships with regional employers and communities, and reach students who need our help.

Because the integrations work tends to grab the headlines, we have heard less about other equally courageous efforts at universities that are not considering integration. That work is just as important in positioning institutions to not just sustain in the aftermath of this pandemic, but to flourish and to grow. IUP’s Next Gen strategy is gaining attention nationally, and it deserves to. Cheyney is capturing attention because of the progress it is making in a turnaround that can only be deemed remarkable. There are notable and equally compelling efforts at East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester—confronting tough issues of student affordability, retention, and graduation—branching out in new program areas, serving new students who need our help.

I encountered a narrative recently suggesting that there really isn’t anything new here in our System Redesign—either in the plans coming out of the universities considering integration, or even those that are aggressively pursuing growth opportunities on their own. I couldn’t help but smile. Because it’s true in a way. The solution set we’re exploring is hardly new—in fact its components are well known, tried and tested, and in 2021 rest on evidence testifying to their success. The solution set includes:
  • shared services and staffing positions that drive down costs and improve quality;
  • shared courses and programs that expand student opportunities;
  • guaranteed community college transfer pathways that are simple and clear and supported by both sending and receiving institutions;
  • concierge-style advising approaches that provide students with navigational aids to a comprehensive suite of supports, and that focus on specific populations with targeted interventions that demonstrably lift retention and graduation rates;
  • financial aid packaging and emergency aid strategies that are focused as much on retention as on admission;
  • robust dual enrollment strategies that strengthen high school pipelines while strengthening the academic preparedness of incoming students and improving their chance of completion;
  • strategies for providing targeted supplemental instruction to students who require it without impeding progress towards their degree;
  • fully online undergraduate degree and degree completion options for students whose life circumstances don’t permit a residential program;
  • non-degree programs that support adults looking to reskill and upskill in the job market; and
  • a commitment in deeds—not just words—to creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities.
The alternative narrative says we are already doing all of these things. And yes, there are definitely points of light and innovation across our System too numerous to list. Frankly, it is those points of light that have fueled my optimism about our future because they demonstrate that yes, we can...if and where we wish to.

But here’s the thing—we are operating in high impact areas as if we were a cottage industry. The State System today has only about 850 dual enrollment students, though there are 231,138 high school juniors and seniors with proximity to a State System university. We transfer in only 2,500 community college students annually—that’s about 15% of total community college graduates. The rest find alternatives that meet their needs in ways we do not—alternatives suiting their budgets, their work and/or domestic circumstances, and their tolerance for overly complicated transfer protocols that result in credit loss and additional cost. Practitioners understand and actively talk about the benefits of holistic advising and perhaps partially implement it in some places, though attempts to scale widely get mired and lost. Our adult student population hasn’t grown a smidge in more than a decade, and while we have fully online undergraduate programs on offer, we enroll fewer than 2,200 students in them. That’s maybe a few (thinking single digit numbers less than 5) percent of the total student demand in PA alone.

What is new about our System Redesign—including our integrations planning—is that it seeks to significantly refresh our version and our vision of public higher education; to reintroduce currency; to integrate demonstrably impactful student-centered practices at the scale required for their impacts to show up in growth; to transform such that those student-centered organizational structures and practices are at the center—not at the periphery—of everything we do.

We will grow our way into the future. The Commonwealth needs us to now more than ever given the economic displacement resulting from the pandemic. Perhaps as important, we need us to. The recession management we’ve been practicing for more than a dozen years sucks (that’s a technical term). It does not create an environment where each of us can do our best work. At the same time, our growth will not come easily. It requires that we replace a strategy of hope (for a good budget or enrollment year) with one tightly focused on our students and our Commonwealth. It requires our collective talent, grit, and determination, and—perhaps hardest of all—that we forego the comfort afforded by the rearview mirror and instead look toward the changing landscape of higher education, and our students’ and Commonwealth’s needs. I will be the first to admit that the forward look is unsettling, but also that it is ours to shape provided we have the courage to try.

The title of this blog borrows words from one president (John Adams), so I will close with the words of another (Lyndon B. Johnson): “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”

1 comment:

  1. I would like to understand the approach that supports ---financial aid packaging and emergency aid strategies that are focused as much on retention as on admission;--=-I would be very interested in learning what is being done for retention.