Monday, July 12, 2021

University Integrations Update

I thought it important to use this blog space to update everyone on the proposed university integrations that the Board of Governors will consider this week. Included below is some information about how the plans have been revised to respond to issues that came forward during the public comment period.

The public review process has been a good one, and I am grateful to the framers of Act 50 for thinking of it, and for writing it into the legislation. Through the comment period, we have identified stakeholder needs and priorities we would have missed and learned what we needed to revise or clarify.

Key outcomes are summarized below. They are all important, but perhaps the most significant is saved to the end and has to do with the much-strengthened coalition that the process has produced in support of our System Redesign. (Those who are tired of wading through the details of integration planning may want to take a shortcut to that destination.)

Extended the timeline for “curriculum integration” by up to an additional two years

The plans as submitted in April included information about the “academic program array”—the degrees, majors, minors, and areas of concentration that will be available in the new university.

What remains is to determine the curriculum—the requirements and courses for each academic program and in what modalities those courses will be taught. And it is this—the process for determining the curriculum—that has been extended over a period of up to three years, using a phased approach, likely beginning with the General Education curriculum and moving on from there.

Why are we making this change? Because we listened during the public review period.

  • We listened to faculty who urged more time so they could develop a better, more thoughtfully crafted curriculum.
  • We listened to current and prospective students who wanted greater clarity about their paths to graduation.
Associated milestones for related aspects of the plan—technology integration, student recruitment and enrollment strategies—will be adjusted to support the phased-in curriculum development, review, and implementation. There will be no impact on the Middle States submission process, the appointment of integration leadership teams, or the start-date of the integrated entity.

Clarified use of online learning

Students will have face-to-face instruction and residential, in-person student experiences at integrated entities. They are defending and improving it while ensuring it remains at all our universities. Use of online will be modest for our residential students and entirely in keeping with their observed behaviors and preferences. Let me review:

  • the entire general education curriculum will be available face-to-face for all students;
  • based on current student enrollments and the academic program array, 75 percent of students are enrolled in degree programs (majors, minors, areas of concentrate) that will have faculty and face-to-face instruction at their campus; and
  • no student will need to travel to pursue their course of study.

Where fully online and hybrid modalities are used, they will align with industry best practices that show promising, often improved outcomes for all students. Let’s be honest with ourselves. The relatively passive use of Zoom that proliferated during the pandemic does not constitute best practices in online or hybrid learning. It reflects heroic efforts made by dedicated faculty in the face of a national emergency to ensure students continued their educational progress while universities protected the health and safety of their communities. In the face of incredible odds, this was a tremendous success. Kudos (and heartfelt thanks) to all.

Best-of-breed online and hybrid approaches are different. According to Every Learner Everywhere—a network of organizations dedicated to helping higher education use new technology to innovate teaching and learning with the goal of improving outcomes for all students, they:

  • are built upon years of learning science, extensive student engagement and participation data, continued innovation in technology capabilities (extending to “adaptive courseware” —learning platforms that adapt themselves to individual students’ learning needs, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality).
  • leverage sophisticated learning design techniques, incorporate active learning and real time learner feedback loops that demonstrably improve student outcomes (disproportionately for at-risk students);
  • are bolstered by extensive investment in faculty professional development and student supports as well as in technology—investments, the modified plan clarifies, we intend to make.
  • Integrating such approaches, universities such as Arizona State, Georgia State University, and the University of Central Florida were demonstrating improved student access and outcomes as early as 2018. Since then, the list of exemplars has only grown as has the power of evidence based online learning.

Online and hybrid learning is not an outlier. It is a mainstream of higher education.

  • Demand for online learning is growing in Pennsylvania. According to the Distance Education Almanac, in Pennsylvania enrollments in fully online programs grew 39 percent between 2012 and 2019 (32 percent nationally). During this same time the number of on-campus students declined by 14.2 percent (10.3 percent nationally).
  • Fully 50,000 Pennsylvanians in 2019 enrolled in a fully online program offered by an out of state provider, according to NC-SARA data, and this despite the preference online students show for enrolling in programs offered at a nearby institution (75 percent of online college students live within 50 miles of their homes).
Our students (and their parents) expect—and want to engage in—at least some online courses.

A survey of 1300 respondents including current and prospective PASSHE university students and parents (taking in respondents from both integrating and non-integrating schools) demonstrated that the overwhelming majority are willing to take up to 25 percent of their courses online in pursuit of the following objectives:
  • Wider range of degrees and majors
  • Quicker time to degree
  • Lower overall cost of degree

Analyzed economic impacts of integration

Integration will have a positive economic impact on the regions in question: 8.1 percent greater in the west than if the three universities were to continue operating independently; 1.9 percent in the northeast.

So says a study commissioned from professionals steeped in the science of community impact studies and available here.

Diminished economic impact of our universities 2014-20 resulted primarily from decline in student spending, not headcount reduction. The economic impact of our universities did decline 2014-20 by 9.5 percent due almost entirely to decline in student spending (significant at universities that lost 40-50 percent of their enrollments over a decade, as is the case at five of our six integrating schools), and a change in the multiplier used nationally in the conduct of such studies. Employee headcount reduction—itself a reaction to enrollment decline—barely factored in the diminished economic impact. This is in part because salaries increased over the period, and in part because the vast majority of reductions were achieved through retirement and natural attrition—not furloughs and retrenchments.

Universities’ pursuit of balanced budget operations is required by Board policy. It is independent of integration and will continue whether we integrate or not. Why is that policy in place? Because balanced budget operations, always a good practice, took on a degree of urgency for the System from the mid-2010s as universities that did not adjust their expenditures to reflect their new enrollment realities began drawing down on the scarce resources that would otherwise have been available to others. The process, if left unchecked, threatened the financial integrity of the System as a whole and the viability of up to half or more of its universities.

Other adjustments and clarifications

These are numerous and address important issues that emerged through public comment. A brief tour is provided below—a fuller inventory can be found here and, of course, in the updated plans available for the northeast and west.
  • Financial projections
    • Transitional financial protections are available for integrating universities to ensure their reserves are not impacted by debts incurred by partner institutions before integration.
    • Financial projections are reforecast and improved, taking account of the above protections as well as new information (e.g., about flat tuition voted by the Board in April 2021 and the availability of federal COVID relief dollars).
    • A third party has reviewed and validated assumptions in our financial projections.
    • The source and level of savings expected from integration are made explicit.
  • Governance and organization
    • An integrated entity cannot and will not cease operations at or close a partner institution. That authority shall remain exclusively with the General Assembly.
    • Recommendations made by leadership and governance working groups about the structure of integrated universities’ Councils of Trustees are included along with a recommendation that if integration be approved, stakeholders be convened to identify a preferred model and If necessary pursue legislative changes required to implement it.
    • The structure and operation of university leadership teams is explained in greater detail, including the role of “campus executives” [working title]—leadership team members combining a functional portfolio (e.g., Chief Academic Officer) with responsibility for vital relationship building, ceremonial, and other related functions in the president’s absence.
    • Integration will not impact the governance of or assets belonging to university affiliates, including foundations.
  • Process
    • Detail is provided about critical next steps including the accreditation process (and related engagement with other regulatory and accrediting bodies) as well as near term milestones such as the development of detailed organizational charts, detailed plans for curriculum integration, technology integration, development of student-facing systems, enrollment management and marketing strategies, etc.

Revised plans do not address issues that were repeatedly raised, but are not grounded in the reality of our situation:
  • A vote to integrate does not require a nod from Middle States and NCAA. It cannot. Middle States won’t consider the matter until the board votes; NCAA will require similar assurances.
  • The integration process has not lacked transparency. Every step along the way is exhaustively documented on the web; deliberations and debate are carried publicly in board meetings, legislative testimony, and hearings; engagement in the process has been encouraged and invited through aggressively-mounted marketing campaigns and countless meetings formally and informally with all stakeholder groups.

Building the coalition for System Redesign

Perhaps the greatest single outcome resulting from the public review process has been the opportunity it afforded to build the coalition we will need to affect not only university integration but the overall redesign of our system, ensuring that it sustainably provides high-quality, career-relevant education to all Pennsylvanians, across all Pennsylvania, now and into the future.

Critical to that coalition is the System’s partnership with the state—a partnership I have been writing, speaking, and testifying about for nearly three years. In that partnership, universities, as recipients of taxpayer dollars are responsible for:

  • reducing the burden both on taxpayers and our students (who in our case pick up 75 percent of our total costs).
  • responding with alacrity and chronic innovation to changing student, employer, and community needs, technology innovation, and the evolution of learning science.
  • ensuring they are diverse communities representing at every level the complexion of the people of this state, are welcoming and inclusive of and produce equitable outcomes for all our members irrespective of race, creed, gender orientation, and zip code.

The state’s responsibility is to support us in a manner that allows us to fulfill our mission—sustainably, ensuring we are accessible affordably to all because those are the only means the Commonwealth has at its disposal of securing a strong economy and a society that provides equal opportunity for all.

Growing momentum in support of that partnership was reflected powerfully in the state’s 2021/22 budget that was recently signed into law by Governor Wolf. In it, the PA State System received an unprecedented one-time $50M investment as an initial down payment on a three-year $200M commitment in support of our System’s Redesign.

I am equally grateful to Governor Wolf for his steadfast leadership and support of our Redesign, and the bipartisan coalition in both chambers of the General Assembly, that turned that support into an investment.

I am grateful for leadership of AFSCME and APSCUF for standing together with us in making our case, and for the opportunity we now have to identify ways the System can operate sustainably while minimizing impacts on our most precious resource—our people.

I am grateful to our Board of Governors, Council of Trustees, and universities presidents for taking on the hard work of convincing our partners in the State that we understand and are taking seriously our part in this relationship, and the countless thousands of employees who have participated actively in designing and impactfully implementing aspects of our redesign. You above all have identified our seriousness of purpose and made demonstrable progress achieving our goals. That work, over and above all else, has been instrumental in building the trust with the General Assembly that our future depends upon.

Together with the one-time funds we will receive courtesy the System’s pre-payment of its SERS obligations and the funding committed by the General Assembly, we have a war chest worth $300 million over four years.

Using those dollars strategically, we can position ourselves not only to survive, but to thrive in the 21st century, to invest the one-time resources necessary to equip our people with the skills and infrastructure and supports that they need to succeed. Like all of higher education, our future will look very different than our past or our present. But God willing, our core mission will remain unchanged—driving social mobility and economic development by advancing opportunity for all Pennsylvanians.

I am an irrepressible optimist by predilection and as such I have always believed that we would find a path to our reinvigoration and the resources necessary to pursue it. Today, I think I can see it emerging out from under a dense thicket.

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