Friday, February 18, 2022

System Redesign Phase 3: Reinvest & Renew

The past holds keen insights into the future. (I suppose you’d expect that perspective from an historian.) Nonetheless, the State System’s Board of Governors plumbed these insights when it met earlier this month to review the progress of our System Redesign in addressing student affordability, systemwide financial health, alignment of academic programs with economic and societal needs, and student completion rates. The reflection was grounded in data—as it must be—and showed our universities bending even the most rigid trend lines in a promising direction.

There’s lot to say grace over, and if you’re interested in a deeper dive, consider the introduction to our 2022 accountability report, which will be available online soon. And none of our progress just happened by itself. It resulted from the hard and careful work of our students, faculty, and staff—much of it done under horrific and challenging circumstances wrought by the pandemic.

The review also illuminated our ability to evolve rapidly to deliver on our mission: providing Pennsylvanians affordable pathways to sustaining careers, enabling them to participate effectively in the 21st century economy and to contribute meaningfully to their communities.

Focused on the next phase of our System Redesign, the Board has turned its attention to the one curve we have yet to significantly affect: enrollment. Having declined at most of our universities for more than a decade, this is the one curve we must absolutely bend for the sake of the commonwealth, its people, its economy, and its social well-being.

Bending the Enrollment Curve

Sixty percent of all jobs in Pennsylvania, and the vast majority of new jobs, require someone with a postsecondary credential—everything from a certificate to a Ph.D.—but only 51 percent of adults in the state have one. That’s a big and growing gap that exists in areas ranging from the trades to health care, financial services, advanced manufacture, agribusiness, IT, social work, education, and the public services. The gap is structural and we need more people acquiring postsecondary credentials to close it.

To fill our share of the gap by 2030, our State System universities must annually graduate 2000 more bachelor’s, 1200 more master’s, and 2000 more non-degree credentials, and yes, that’s starting right now.

The only way to deliver more degrees and credentials is to expand enrollmentrecruit new students and retain the students we enroll.  

How many more student enrollments will it take to meet those credentialing levels? About 11,500 undergraduates, 3,500 graduates, and maybe another 5,000 students pursuing non-degree credentials.

There are other reasons to focus on growth. Economic impact is one: State System universities’ economic impact declined by more than 25 percent between 2015 and 2021 largely because fewer students are living, studying, and spending in the communities where our universities are located. Jobs are another reason: the number of people the State System universities can employ is tied directly to the number of students they enroll.

Strategic Enrollment Growth

The good news is we know who and where the students are and how to recruit, enroll, retain, and graduate them. We also know our success growing enrollments will require the same kind of transformational thinking that has driven System Redesign thus far. It requires systemic and consistent action taken comprehensively across the State System. Frankly, I think the task ahead will require an even higher level of fundamental transformation in our practices and mindsets than we’ve seen thus far. Here are a few reasons why. 

There is real undergraduate enrollment growth potential with low- and middle-income students in the 18-24-year-old age group (let’s call them “traditional students”), especially with community college transfer students, with under-represented minorities (given the combined effects of population growth and continued improvement in high-school outcomes), and with those who are “college ready” but not “college bound.” 

Adult students (those over the age of 24) present additional opportunities. Pennsylvania is home to a million adults with some college but no degree. That’s a big number.  And there are further opportunities with short-course, non-degree programs for people seeking to reskill or upskill, and for employers looking for qualified talent in high demand roles. (I wrote about these last month.) We estimate our share runs annually to as many as 5000 additional credentials per year, typically in areas where we have proven competency—health care, business, information technology, etc.  

All of these opportunities engage students who are in so many ways core to our historic mission. But serving them successfully, with integrity, will require far-reaching transformational changes in how we work. 

Opportunities with traditional and non-traditional students require us to continually retool student supports and pedagogy in order to serve those who are:

  • first-generation students unable to draw upon their parents or guardians to help navigate the path to and through postsecondary education;
  • students who never thought college was for them or that they could afford it;
  • students with more capability than they applied in high school;
  • under-represented minority students seeking university communities that are welcoming, supportive, and safe for all with faculty and staff who reflect the diversity of the students and have the cultural competencies to meet students where they are irrespective of their race, creed, color, gender identity, politics, socioeconomic status and world views; and
  • community college transfer students who need us to implement our Board’s policy by admitting AA and AS degree holders as juniors with 60 credits—no questions asked, no courses retaken— and to provide specific supports in combination with our community college colleagues that facilitate progress.

The Path Forward

We have a good track record, and here are just a few examples: Kutztown has increased first-to-second year retention by 5 percent since 2014; Cheyney has improved graduation rates by 18 percent since 2014; and Ship and others have begun to chip away at retention gaps between under-represented and other students. So, yes, we can. There is existence proof here and elsewhere. 

But this work must be strengthened, done comprehensively, and with even greater impact in order to produce better outcomes for all, not just the 61 percent who ultimately “cross the stage” and receive their degrees. We cannot possibly grow traditional student enrollments with “stop-out” (students who pause their education but don’t dropout) rates travelling at 24 percent (and higher for Black and Hispanic students). It is unconscionable. Not right. Unfair. Not ever, and especially not when students are sacrificing so much to attend. We have an obligation as recipients of public funding and student tuition dollars (much of which is provided by loans that saddle our students) to do better. 

Our adult student numbers are also unlikely to grow beyond the anemic 10 percent level where they’ve hovered for decades, unless we create educational pathways that are suited to their lifestyles, which typically don’t and can’t accommodate on-campus experiences. Here, too, we have a good track record, but must do more. Among other things, we must expand our fully online degree pathways. Even though our online undergraduate enrollments have grown 89 percent since fall 2012, we are still tracking behind the national average. We must also expand supports for those fully online learners and for adult learners whose needs are different from those of more traditional age college students. 

Finally, we also have a good track record with non-degree credentials, which I wrote about in last month’s blog. We’ve grown enrollments there by 246 percent since 2015 and are annually adding new programs that meet particular workforce demands. But there is much more to do in producing more non-degree credentials serving high demand areas. There is more to do, too, revising and refining supports for students pursuing non-degree credentials because they have different recruitment, enrollment, educational, and support needs than other students. Darn that postsecondary education! Pity it isn’t as simple as a garden hose—turn it on the next student and they get as wet as the last one.

We have so many strengths upon which to build:

  • our universities are centrally important to the communities they serve;
  • our students’ success and their inclusion has become a design principle in everything we do.
  • we ground our work not only in our sense of mission but also in a set of basic human values that revolve around compassion, tolerance, and a humbling regard for our role as educators in contributing to a civil society, and promoting civil discourse; and
  • energy is building at many of our universities for serving students who need our help now but who come to us from relatively new and underserved groups. 

Re-imagine, Re-invigorate, and Re-engage

I am not concerned one iota about capability, energy, entrepreneurialism. We have tremendous faculty and staff.

I am concerned about our clock speed. Time is not our friend. We are not the only actors seeking growth opportunities in these spaces. Enrollment in the state’s only public four-year universities is a wonderful thing and a great idea; but it is not an entitlement.

And there is the nub of the transformational task ahead of us. Our success will not be based on who we were or on slick and revitalized marketing campaigns (although our history is a proud one and a powerful attractor, and yes there is work to be done in recruitment). It will rest on the quality and relevance of the programs we offer and on the effectiveness of the supports we provide our students. It will rest on our abilities to adjust what we do to reach each of today’s students where they are, not where they were a dozen or so years ago (or where we were when we were in college). 

We need to review with an open mind and be willing to change, even fundamentally, how we educate and support our students, recognizing and tailoring our work to their very different needs. We need to evaluate our practices against those deployed elsewhere, integrating what demonstrably delivers for our students. We need to change our policies and, where necessary, our contracts to accommodate, invest in, and support our faculty and staff to develop their skills and abilities and unleash their creative energies. We need to feel empowered to take risks and to innovate knowing that innovation doesn’t always work the way one hopes, and be willing to back away quickly from unproductive efforts—to “fail fast.” To grow, we need to re-imagine, re-invigorate, re-engage. 

The one-time federal funds committed last June by the General Assembly have been instrumental in catapulting us into this critically important phase of our System Redesign, and I am grateful to the Governor and the General Assembly for their bi-partisan support of this investment.

But, and lastly, we cannot bend the enrollment curve and achieve the credentialing productivity the state requires on the back of one-time money.

The students who represent our best growth opportunities—the very same students who the state needs credentialed in order to meet its workforce development needs—include students who have been historically excluded from higher education and/or come from communities that are under-resourced. Accordingly, we can expect that, for some, crossing the finish line will require a higher level of innovation and support than can be afforded by their tuition and fee dollars alone.

These students are in danger of being priced out of Pennsylvania’s public higher education. Low- and middle-income students are squeezed particularly hard. And Pennsylvania’s public higher education is the most affordable four-year option in the state.

Investing in Students for Pennsylvania’s Success

By honoring the significant additional investments identified in a letter sent in November to the Governor and the General Assemblyinvestments that the Governor included in his budget earlier this monthour state owners can unlock and unleash the power and promise that is public higher education.

They can make those investments with confidence, based on demonstrable evidence, that their state system will:

  • continue to operate with utmost efficiency;
  • spend dollars in pursuit of clearly and publicly defined goals resulting in improved outcomes for all our students and their future employers; and
  • continue to invite accountability and be held to the highest performance standards.

Investment will fuel and rapidly accelerate the transformation we have begun and for which we have shown real progress. More importantly, by bolstering public higher education as the affordable bridge to opportunity for all Pennsylvanians, our owners will generate the credentials the state needs, enhance the state’s economic competitiveness, and respond to employers’ urgent and crying need for the talent they need to succeed in this commonwealth.

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