Friday, April 22, 2022

Why a system? The Power and Promise of Public Higher Education

Students choose a university because it’s a good fit for them. Students know this. Parents know this. (I know this, having lived the experience with our two kids.) The choice is often driven by a combination of factors such as the school’s reputation, academic programs, cost, size, location, overall “feel” of the campus and more. 

But I wonder if there is an added value for students who choose to attend a PASSHE university? If the State System did a joint marketing campaign with any of our universities, how would the benefit of being part of the system be represented? What distinctive qualities does it provide for a PASSHE university student, their parents, the surrounding community? Great questions. So good, in fact, that I thought I’d suggest some answers here, where I could also invite comment from you.   

Advantages appear to me in two categories: 1) those having to do with the fact that PASSHE universities are public, and 2) those having to do with their being part of a system.  


Public universities are the most affordable four-year higher education options in the state. While the state contributes a mere 25% of our total revenues, students fund the remaining 75%. That 25% is vitally important and allows us to maintain a net average price of attendance that is lower than at other Pennsylvania universities and colleges. While the price gap has narrowed over the years, it still exists and is important to the students we serve—70% of whom are from low- and middle-income Pennsylvania families.

Yes, of course, other Pennsylvania universities and colleges receive federal and state funding. This includes Pell and PHEAA state grants made directly to students, as well as federal and state agency investments that are made directly to universities and colleges. Perversely (though this should come as no surprise in a society that has proven to be so good at reproducing privilege across generations), elite, private research universities enjoy the highest level of public support when measured in dollars per student FTE. At the University of Pennsylvania—a research powerhouse that also manages an important medical establishment—19% of students receive federal grant aid, including Pell and Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) dollars of $8,449, as compared to the $4,132 average that 51% of State System students receive. 

It is also true that many schools—state-related as well as private—offer some of their students enough institutional aid to rival a PASSHE university price. Penn even boasts that students from families earning less than $90,000 a year will attend tuition-free. It can do this because it has a sizeable endowment ($20.5 billion in 2021) and a “high fees, high aid” tuition model. That means it enrolls as many students as it can who pay full price so it can subsidize those from lower-income backgrounds who cannot. The challenge is that no school, no matter how richly endowed, has enough financial aid to consistently beat the net average price paid by students at a State System university. That brings me directly to the second distinctive advantage of a public university.   

Public universities are readily available to all Pennsylvanians. We are inclusive. There are at least two ways to think about our inclusiveness: 

  • We accept most students, providing a path that is unavailable at many other colleges and universities. Our two most selective universities respectively admit 80% and 81% of all applicants. The rest of our universities accept 90% or more of those who apply. This means we are available not only to students who enroll directly in our honors colleges and are as good academically as students anywhere in the country, but we also accept those looking for (and deserving) a second chance to advance themselves educationally—students who may not be considered elsewhere. Yes, at Penn you can have a free ride on tuition if you earn less than $90,000, but only if you are fortunate enough to be among the 7% of all applicants that are admitted.
  • State System universities are the most affordable four-year option in Pennsylvania, which creates opportunities for students who are priced out of other universities. No surprise, then, to discover that:
    • 70% of our traditional-age students (those enrolling within a few years after high school graduation) are from families earning at or below the average/median household income in Pennsylvania; 
    • 32% are first in their family to go to college; 
    • 33% qualify for Pell grants, meaning they are from lower-income families.  
  • Also, unsurprisingly, our students are as diverse as the demographics of Pennsylvania, because we are the people’s universities.

Public universities are absolutely critical to the economic health and well-being of Pennsylvania. This is an audacious claim. It’s also true. As I’ve written elsewhere, 60% of all jobs in the state today require a person with some higher education—anything from a credential in phlebotomy to a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Yet today, only 51% of all Pennsylvania adults have some higher education. That creates a so-called “talent gap.” And the gap is growing. Workforce estimates suggest that by 2030, Pennsylvania will require 15.7% more people educated to the master’s level, 8.1% more to the bachelor’s level, 5.5% more to the associate level, and 4% more with non-degree credentials.   

To fill its share of the gap, PASSHE universities would need to produce 2,000 more bachelor’s degrees, 1,200 more master’s degrees, and perhaps as many as 2,500 additional non-degree credentials every year, starting today, and sustaining that level of production at least through 2030. Every other Pennsylvania university and college would also need to expand its credentialing productivity proportionally to achieve that goal. Here’s the thing. They can’t. Why? Because there aren’t enough people who can afford the average price of attending other universities and colleges, and other universities and colleges don’t have enough financial aid to lower their net average price to enroll enough students. Realistically, given the economics of private and state-related higher education, PASSHE universities are the only economical path to reduce the talent gap by educating and graduating enough people to meet the needs of the workforce in Pennsylvania.    

The marginal cost of each additional credential is lower at a State System university than anywhere else. And let me be clear: I’m describing a math problem, not making a statement about the relative value of private, state-related and public universities and colleges. This brings me to a third distinctive value claimed by PASSHE universities. (Did I already say they are Pennsylvania’s only public universities?)  

Public universities are engines of social mobility. A while back I published what were then very new data on State System graduates’ salaries one, three, five, and 10 years after graduation. The data demonstrate the true power of public higher education.   

  • The vast majority of our graduates get “good jobs,” earning considerably more (nearly a million dollars more on average over a lifetime) than people who end their formal education after receiving a high school diploma.
  • Ten years after they graduate, students who enrolled in one of our universities with a low income will be earning about as much as students who enrolled with a high income.  
  • The same leveling-up effect is apparent when you layer race onto income. Thus, a low-income Black student will, 10 years after graduation, be earning about as much as a high-income white student.

Yes, other universities and colleges also propel their graduates into good jobs and drive social mobility. But few if any of the four-year options in Pennsylvania can claim the depth and breadth of impact that State System universities have. Benefitting from state support, we open our doors to and serve a higher proportion of low- and middle-income students than are typically found elsewhere. PASSHE universities sustainably serve far more low- and middle-income students than private and state-related universities that rely on a high-fees, high-aid approach along with massive endowments. That’s the whole point of public higher education. Our universities are funded to change lives—a lot of them—to lift up people and their families en masse. 


Universities are more efficient when they are part of a system. These efficiencies reduce university costs and help to keep student tuition and fees down and/or achieve greater impact (typically measured in service quality) for the dollars they spend. Some examples:

  • By buying as part of a procurement collective, universities gain leverage in the marketplace and secure lower prices than they would if they operated on their own. 
  • By sharing appointments (employees), universities can fill vital roles with talented people who may not be as affordable or available or make as much sense financially to an institution operating independently. Among other examples, our universities share human resources functions to improve efficiencies and several universities share courses and faculty in order to provide students with more offerings. This level of cross-university coordination is groundbreaking for the system and is only the beginning of what we can accomplish for students to control costs and expand their opportunities.

Students gain expanded educational opportunities as State System universities share educational programming. Shared programming is a centerpiece of our System Redesign, which at its core envisions a world in which students enrolled at one PASSHE university can more easily access educational opportunities at another PASSHE university. We know that technology is a foundational component to running a university—upgrading to a modern, cloud-based, mobile-enabled platform will enable all students to benefit from a common set of functionalities. It is so important a centerpiece of our work that we have invested $14 million in realizing the vision by implementing a common student information system (SIS). Installed in phases over a four-year period, the “OneSIS” will enable students seamlessly to find, register in, take, and get degree credit for courses available at PASSHE universities other than the one in which they are enrolled. Think of the opportunities.

Working together, universities can offer students more educational opportunities than any one university could on its own. By sharing courses (as opposed to full academic programs), universities provide their students access to:

  • More majors, minors, areas of concentration, and experts or specialists than they can afford on their own; and 
  • greater course availability to help keep students on track to completion.  

Systems are “scaling agents” that can accelerate innovative ideas and practices that expand student access, improve affordability or improve student outcomes. What the heck does that mean? Innovations are relatively easy to dream up, pilot and prototype. Taking them to scale is a different matter. The vast majority stagnate at the pilot or prototype stage, never reaching a majority of potential beneficiaries even where they demonstrate positive impact and financial viability.  Systems are uniquely able to drive innovations to scale more quickly in order to benefit the students they serve.  

Other ways students benefit from universities working together in a system include:

  • PASSHE universities offer reasonable class sizes. All of our universities deservedly boast of a caring and committed faculty and student-facing staff that put students first. And faculty engage with students in classes that are intimate in scale: 53% of all classes have fewer than 25 students and only 4% have more than 60. This kind of intimacy is common at private liberal arts colleges, but at few other institutions.
  • Our universities maintain a wide range of athletics programs, student clubs and associations that emphasize student engagement. That’s a good thing because research shows that students who are engaged in the life of a university do significantly better in terms of graduation than those who are not. 
  • Undergraduate degrees are grounded in a general education that provide students with the important skills—critical thinking, communication, etc.—that employers universally value, while including specific technical or professional skills that equip students for their career path. While the combination is not wholly unique, it is rare. And it significantly advantages State System students in pursuit of sustaining careers.


When I consider the question of how to articulate the value of choosing a university that is part of a public system, I am encouraged by all of this and more. Because we are public, PASSHE universities remain the most affordable four-year higher education option—allowing students from every walk of life to gain a pathway to opportunities that would be closed at other schools. And because we are a system, each university can do more together than they ever could by themselves. That is a real value to our students. 

Now, I want to hear from you. I invite you to comment in the space below or send me your thoughts via email (


[1] by Kriss Deiglmeier & Amanda Greco, “ Why Proven Solutions Struggle to Scale Up”, Stanford Social Innovation Review (August 10, 2018) 

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