Saturday, October 22, 2022

PASSHE’s role in Pennsylvania’s innovation imperative

PASSHE’s mission is simple—provide all Pennsylvanians with affordable, high-quality education, enabling them to participate productively in the 21st-century economy, sustain themselves and their families, and contribute meaningfully to their communities. In pursuit of that mission, we regularly review and revise everything we do. Why? Because while our purpose remains, the world in which we pursue it changes at an ever-accelerating pace.

Our students are changing. Today, they come from all walks of life and all ages. It is because of what public universities and community colleges have done since the 1950s that opportunities—once available to only a small fraction of our society—have been democratized. What’s more, high school graduates are no longer the majority of students enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges. As shown by Higher Learning Advocates in the figure copied below, they are joined by working learners, parents, and so many others.

The world of work for which we prepare students is also changing. Sixty percent of all jobs in Pennsylvania today require someone in them with some higher education; therefore, it is not surprising that the more you learn, the more you earn. Accordingly, attending a public university is now the most affordable and reliable pathway to sustaining careers. In part as a consequence, lifelong learning – repeat visits to universities – once the exception, is now also the norm. Programs of study leading to bachelor’s and master’s degrees continue to be a central part of what we do. We therefore need to be more responsive to students and employers who are looking for shorter programs of study that deliver specific skills as recognized by industry-based certificates or licenses. The supply of non-degree credentials has exploded in recent years, reaching nearly half a million at last count, in 2019.

Lastly, the tools we use to fashion our students’ educational experience change—at light speed given the pace of technological advance. A decade ago, online learning was on the cutting edge. Today online learning is common; the cutting edge of educational technology belongs to artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality.

To keep up with these rapid and layered changes in pursuit of our historic mission requires relentless intellectual curiosity and an entrepreneurial spirit that restlessly asks how do we, as educational institutions, better and more affordably serve our students, their employers, our communities? How do we help even more people cross the bridge to opportunity that is afforded to them by public higher education?

To answer these and other similar questions, all we have to do is look to the innovation already existing and developing within our State System universities. They show us the answer, which is, in short, that we innovate, we hustle, we work together with one another, with employers and with schools and community colleges. Here are few examples:

In partnership with Pennsylvania’s Department of Education and Department of Labor and Industry respectively, and with the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), PASSHE is exploring the development of a prototype inventory of all the credentials that PASSHE universities and HACC produce in healthcare and IT. The prototype seeks to help students evaluate educational options in these broad areas and how they connect with careers and earning potential. It would also help employers connect with students who have the skills they are looking for. If successful, the registry may be extended to include credentials produced by other Pennsylvania colleges and universities, and/or those from PASSHE universities and HACC leading to jobs in other industry areas.

We are using technology in creative new ways outside the “classroom.” In West Chester University’s moonshot initiative, for example, we are incorporating technologies that use millions of observations about how students progress in their educational journeys to identify the obstacles that commonly trip them up, and the actions that support them best when they stumble.

We work together and with employer partners to build innovative educational pathways that help people enter and grow in sustaining careers, focusing often in areas where skilled workers are in shortest supply.
  • Cheyney University, the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Department of Education, and the Community College of Philadelphia are working in partnership to expand the number of diverse teachers in the Philadelphia public school system. They begin with students in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, and encourage them to go into teaching.
  • HACC, Harrisburg University, Shippensburg University, and the Giant Company are working together to create pathways that connect educational opportunities across the three institutions to build pathways for those seeking to launch and advance careers in agribusiness.
  • At East Stroudsburg University, students pursuing degrees in business, education, sports administration, and other fields, are earning badges along the way. The badges testify to their mastery of competencies that are in high demand by employers. Using these badges, students are getting great internships and jobs even in advance of their completing their baccalaureate degrees.
This necessarily restless quest for continuous innovation and renewal also is pursued in partnership with universities outside of Pennsylvania. Our innovation imperative is a national, not a regional, phenomenon. For example, Indiana University of Pennsylvania is part of partnership with more than a dozen institutions nationally who are considering a simple proposition which, if true, could have profound and very positive impacts on the cost of a college degree. Does a bachelor’s degree always require 120 credit hours of seat time, or can the same learning be accomplished with less, providing that bridge to opportunity in a faster and more affordable manner?

There is significant historic precedent and considerable evidence that such a hypothesis may prove true, and these are described in greater detail in a memorandum provided to the State Board of Education in support of a waiver seeking the necessary permissions to mount the pilot over a period of years with a small handful of courses, gathering evidence about potential for impact. Assuming it is possible to deliver the same learning outcomes in three year as in four, consider the potential impact on the net price we are asking students to pay to acquire a baccalaureate degree. Imagine the impact if the degree is pursued in partnership with community colleges where students might attend for their first one or even two years. Is the potential benefit not great enough to warrant empirical investigation? I wonder what students and their families would say if we asked them? I wonder what they would say if we, as educators—bound by statute to provide the most affordable higher education possible—refused even to consider the opportunity.

These and many other initiatives currently underway at Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities represent the continued innovation and renewal that necessarily defines the world of public higher education today. It requires that today’s college communities bring an entrepreneurial, growth mindset that eagerly looks through the front windshield, only glancing occasionally in the rearview mirror to ensure we keep sight of our historic purpose and core values. It is sustained by investment in our faculty and staff and our willingness to try—but not always succeed—as we constantly seek new ways of expanding access, improving success, and driving down cost of attendance for all our students.

And it entails our staying in close touch with the people and communities we serve, helping them understand why the world of education needs to evolve, why it will look different today than when they were students, why we need continuously to innovate so that more people cross the bridge to opportunity in these post-pandemic times, and why holding true and fast to our mission entails our constantly evaluating and evolving everything we do.

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