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June 28, 2012

Governor’s commission seeks input on postsecondary ed

Local academic leaders decried state cuts to higher education and advocates for an educated workforce called for more respect for skilled trades and better job preparation as the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education gathered public input on the future of higher education in Pennsylvania.

As part of a series of five public meetings scheduled throughout the state, the commission convened June 14 in Pittsburgh to hear public comments and review the commission’s early work.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg is among about 30 members of the commission, which was convened by Gov. Tom Corbett in February (see Feb. 9 University Times).

Commissioners include members who represent post-secondary education delivery — including community colleges, state-related and state-system universities and private institutions — as well as professors, students, employers and parents.

Commission chair Rob Wonderling, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, said the commission is charged with building a long-term framework for the state’s postsecondary education system.

“The meat of our charge is to ensure greater accessibility, affordability and employability,” he said, stressing the importance of ensuring that education provides users of the system with long-term employability in a globalized, interdependent and rapidly changing economy.

Another aspect, he said, was to be bullish on the system that is in place, calling it “the envy of many, many states in the union,” due to its variety and impact on the state’s economy.

“We want to leverage the local economic engine that is our postsecondary education system. And realizing that, in an interdependent global economy we want to ensure that our postsecondary education system provides a global gateway back and forth to leverage intellectual capital around the world … leveraging locally, leveraging globally,” Wonderling said.

Other aspects of the commission’s charge are to conduct a review of best practices and also to modernize the statutory regulatory structure to ensure that it applies long-term.

In addition to the session in Pittsburgh, the committee heard public comments in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and West Middlesex. The last of the scheduled meetings is set for today, June 28, in Wilkes-Barre.

Wonderling said the statewide series of “listening workshops” has yielded important thoughtful discourse and excellent ideas on the future of the state’s postsecondary education system.

The commission will reconvene in Harrisburg July 16 and work through October as it prepares to finalize its report by the governor’s Nov. 15 deadline.

“We will be early,” Wonderling said, promising a “really strong product” that he said would not be put together in a rush.

He encouraged input from individuals via the commission’s web page at

“We definitely want the conversation to continue.”

Respect for skilled trades

Guest speaker Chris Allison, former CEO of Tollgrade Communications, called for a higher level of accountability among both educators and students.

“I’m concerned about grade inflation and I’m concerned about academic rigor in the classroom,” said Allison, who is a trustee of Allegheny College and who has been teaching there since 2005.

“I have a lot of students who come from outside the United States,” he said. “They are the most aggressive, hardworking students that I’ve ever met. I would like to instill that aggressiveness in our students from the United States because it’s not common across the board.”

Allison observed that some college students “shouldn’t be there because they aren’t motivated to be there,” adding that he feels that skilled trades have been devalued — with people who lack college degrees being viewed as “lesser people” while skilled trade jobs go unfilled.

He suggested following the German model in which students early in their academic career choose whether to follow a skilled trades or university track.

David Frengel, director of government affairs for Butler-based precision metal manufacturer Penn United Technologies, recounted his own experience as the company’s human resources manager.

Between 1994 and 2001, he was hiring 10 people a month for skilled positions. “We could no longer depend on the vo-techs and community colleges to prepare these people for us,” he said. The company built its own training center “because we could not depend on the public sector to train them for us. We had 201 of our own employees — full-time paid employees — going through training in our own technical training center.”

He called for an education system in which people can come to work ready on Day 1, rather than relying on employers to train workers.

It is problematic for small shops to invest in training apprentices who then leave with their skills for bigger companies: “When we get them trained — and we’re able to pay not bad — they get hired away by the larger corporations who have scrapped their technical training programs. So we end up training for the bigger companies.” Frengel agreed that the image of manufacturing needs to be improved, citing cases in which high school guidance counselors faced backlash from parents for directing students toward technical programs rather than college.

A strong existing system

Nordenberg, who reported on the commission’s administration and financial structures working group’s discussion, said there is great respect for the existing system of higher education in Pennsylvania.

“We believe collectively that both the commonwealth and its citizens benefit greatly from the richly diversified community of providers that already is in place,” he said. “The institutional diversity that we find provides Pennsylvania students with the widest possible choices to pursue and achieve their own diverse educational goals, consistent with their financial means, their abilities, their interests and their aspirations. Individual institutions vary widely in terms of mission, cost, access, competitiveness, programs, structure, campus life, learning environment and size. Within the wide range of existing possibilities, then, there is a place for literally everyone,” the chancellor said.

Recognizing the system’s high levels of excellence and impact, he said, “Even as you contemplate change, you need to focus on the protection of what you already have. This might be viewed as the commissioners’ equivalent of the physicians’ Hippocratic oath: ‘First do no harm.’”

Nordenberg said, “The real risk of harm is embedded in an extended history of underfunding in Pennsylvania when compared to competitor states — a history that now spreads over many years, but that notably includes two years of cuts and proposed cuts that are deeper than anything that has been seen in the commonwealth even as we have moved through other challenging times.

“Our group as a starting point very clearly expressed its belief that Pennsylvania can neither remain competitive in the innovation economy of the 21st century nor meet obligations to the next generation of citizens and workers unless this trend is reversed.”

Rising costs

Guest speaker Gregory Dell’Omo, president of Robert Morris University, noted that the role of universities has changed. That brings new costs as students who at one time might have been excluded from college now are coming to school with issues that are more reflective of society as a whole — needing counseling, tutoring and advising on personal and academic issues.

More inclusion isn’t wrong, he said. “It’s the reality of running universities and part of the cost in addition to technology and the cost of running facilities” to address life issues to enable students to succeed.

Dell’Omo said there is great value in helping students overcome issues, “but there is a real cost to that.”

Lamenting declines in the state’s already below-average support for higher education, Dell’Omo called attention in particular to recent cuts in support for Pennsylvania’s state system and state-related institutions, as well as to PHEAA grant funding.

“That’s impacting lower-income students,” he said. “Naturally, these are major concerns.”

Dell’Omo said the state’s academic institutions, both public and private, are conscious of affordability and accessibility issues and strive to hold down tuition costs. He argued that there is little waste in higher education, citing some of the strategies public and private institutions have undertaken in recent years to hold down costs, “All with an eye to maintain — not enhance — the economic quality of what we provide with both our teaching and research,” he said.

Among the efforts: paring staff, freezing salaries, offering retirement incentives, outsourcing non-core functions, cutting programs, increasing class sizes and realigning organizational structures and work processes.

“This still is a highly labor-intensive industry. It’s based on an idea that we will both generate new knowledge as well as disseminate knowledge.”

Funding higher education

Dell’Omo, who chairs the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education (PCHE) consortium of 10 area colleges and universities and serves as vice chair of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Pennsylvania (AICUP), an organization representing about 90 private institutions, said, “All the organizations within PCHE as well as the AICUP organization share a very common interest in ensuring that the commonwealth provides equitable and adequate funding for higher education, both public and private sectors, not less funding.”

Dell’Omo added that as the economy diversifies, it becomes even more important that the state’s educational systems align with that growth.

He cited research that documents the connection between an educated workforce and such benefits as economic mobility and regional economic health, noting Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti’s assertion in the book “Geography of Jobs” that education is the most important factor in driving the economy — “innovation-based regional economies that then benefit all workers through the multiplier effect, not just those with college degrees,” Dell’Omo said.

“This question is not a matter of how much we should cut from higher education, but how much more investment we should make into higher education,” he said.

“This is a business decision that looks at what the relationship is between an educated workforce and the economic growth potential of a particular region — in our case, the state — and shows that those relations are direct and obvious both locally, nationally and internationally.

“So the question should be more ‘How do we invest more in higher education?’ … and how we turn that investment into something that’s going to be even better in a global economy.”

Research institutions’ contributions

Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon weighed in on the unique role of research institutions, calling attention to the economic and academic contributions both of private institutions such as CMU and public ones, like Pitt. “I don’t think that Pittsburgh or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appreciate what an incredible asset  — national asset, global asset — we have here,” he said.

“Between us we do $1.2 billion of sponsored research. It’s money coming from outside the region, largely from the federal government,” money that is leveraged to create additional economic activity in the region.

“Without Pitt, without CMU, Pittsburgh would not be what it is today. We’ve created hundreds of companies and thousands of jobs,” he said.

“Research universities are special not just because they do research,” Cohon said, noting that students are getting the kind of education they could not get any other place — studying under faculty who are conducting research at the frontier of their fields. “It’s the kind of education that we need to create people ready to do innovation — and that’s the key to economic success.”

Commenting on state support, Cohon said, “It makes me really crazy when our mindset is: How much less money can Pitt get by on from the state? It’s totally the wrong question.

“If you accept my point about the asset they are, what they represent for this community, the question should be: How do we make this even better? How do we leverage it even more?” he said.

“The mindset that we’re overpaid and underworked … is totally wrong-headed. I hope we can shift the conversation.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow