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Opinion

Here’s a One-Two Fix for Pennsylvania’s Colleges and Universities | Opinion

Credit: iStock

by Capital-Star Guest Contributor, Pennsylvania Capital-Star

By Robert Goodman

In one of his first executive orders, Gov. Josh Shapiro underscored what many educators already know: Our traditional higher education system is in trouble.

Shapiro announced that 92% of state government jobs will no longer require a four-year college degree. Rather, job applicants for these 65,000 jobs will be considered based on skills, relevant experience, and merit. 

Shapiro’s move is consistent with those of two other governors – former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox – who have also responded to the burgeoning, bipartisan push to temper the role of college degrees in America.

These discussions – in public and behind closed doors – are upending a generational trend in which Americans’ gateway to success relies on the acquisition of an increasingly more expensive piece of parchment paper.

American society and politics are split between those with and without degrees; K-12 school districts are suffering massive teacher shortages throughout Pennsylvania, while unsustainable student debt hobbles far too many graduates.

And now, some of our colleges and universities are facing the perfect storm: a steady drop in enrollment and rising costs that are forcing institutions to shut their doors and auction off acres of land to the highest bidder.

Leaders of many colleges and universities in Pennsylvania have expressed concerns about their financial future. Penn State University now has a $140 million deficit, prompting President Neeli Bendapudi to admit the school was “in a vulnerable state.” 

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) had to consolidate six of its campuses into two because of a decrease in enrollment and the financial squeeze that has become a standard story line.

While our higher education system is failing in critical ways, it was designed by people and can be fixed by people. It is entirely within our control. If we are willing. 

We need a candid, nationwide discussion about the true purpose of college. These schools – costing upwards of $200,000 for a four-year degree – must be re-configured to build on their original intent: giving our next generation the tools they need to flourish.

I’m pleased to see the winds are beginning to change. 

Social ruptures are being reduced by eliminating artificial degree requirements, opening jobs and opportunities to the most qualified candidates regardless of whether they earned a degree. 

Why an applicant needs to have college credits, or a degree for a specific job, should be clearly and publicly explained in the “help wanted” ad. Any degree requirements not supported by objective need should be eliminated, lowering the artificially high demand for higher education.

The system that led to tuition rising at three times the rate of inflation, while graduation rates have declined, needs to be addressed. A single year of private college tuition now runs more than $32,000; it should cost just over $10,000 based solely on inflation over the past 50 years.

Many students are forced to take on untenable debt or abandon their dream of a degree. Student debt has become a lifelong burden for many; only behind home mortgages as the largest form of debt in our nation. 

Without a degree, individuals cannot become K-12 teachers. And as the number of bachelor’s degrees decline, so too does the number of potential K-12 teachers, creating this ongoing teacher shortage.

Such a trend reduces access to a quality education for many K-12 students. And, as is often the case, the most impacted are underrepresented minorities and children living in poverty.

In 2019, former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took a crucial step in addressing this problem by eliminating regional accreditation. This ended monopolies held by college accreditors; local colleges and universities could no longer block new institutions, unleashing innovation to achieve lower costs and higher graduation rates. 

New colleges and universities should be embraced; rewarding those entities that are reinventing education to provide better outcomes at lower costs.

Driving innovation requires drastically reducing the time, effort, and money that new institutions need to invest to earn accreditation and compete for students against the status quo.

Accreditation should be focused on student success, not fidelity to replicating processes that have proven ineffective. It should be a simple transparent process that lists the institution’s student outcomes, costs, and financial viability – not hundreds of pages documenting adherence to out-of-date policies and processes.

Accreditation should no longer be complex or arcane, but clear and concise. And it should not require the blessing of anyone with a conflict of interest, specifically those employed by a college or university.

By addressing accreditation and transparency, higher education can become highly relevant, once again. Anyone who wants to attend college could afford it. But those who don’t, won’t be penalized by artificial degree requirements. 

Now is the time for colleges and universities to resume their role of unifying and advancing our country.

Robert Goodman Ed.D. is the executive director of the NJCTL, a nonprofit that provides simple, scalable solution for the nation’s massive STEM teacher shortage and the great social injustice that comes from depriving underserved students access to STEM education and the important opportunities this learning provides. A native of Plymouth Meeting, Pa.,  Goodman writes from Ridgewood, NJ. Learn more about the non-profit work of NJCTL, both nationally and internationally, at njctl.org.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.