Transforming PA higher education
OpinionGuest columnist

Transforming PA higher education

As Jews, the label “People of the Book” underscores the importance of education in our daily life.

Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh (Photo by Notyourbroom, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh (Photo by Notyourbroom, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Higher education nationally is experiencing a crisis of trust and even relevance to much of the American public. It is up to higher education — particularly public higher education, where the vast majority of students enroll — to adapt and, in some cases, transform.

As Jews, the label “People of the Book” underscores the importance of education in our daily life and existence as a people through the millennia. This ancient and strong Jewish value around our own learning translated to a passion for education among the Jews who emigrated to the United States over the past three centuries.

Data from any number of metrics — including those around personal finances, health, family stability and citizen engagement — bear out that higher education provides Americans with the most reliable means to freedom from poverty and, indeed, upward social mobility. Yet higher education, in Pennsylvania and throughout the country, now stands at a crucial juncture, grappling with rising costs and the evolving needs of employers and students amid a backdrop of skepticism regarding its value.

Here in Pennsylvania, more than 60,000 high-demand jobs have gone unfilled because people cannot access or afford the degree or credential necessary to do the job. That means countless teachers, nurses, mental health professionals, technology experts and more are needed right now. This shortage has persisted for years, highlighting the urgent need for transformative action.

As past chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, I appreciate the role of a strong central organization to bring community together and foster collaboration. As chair of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, I have seen firsthand how a comprehensive and collaborative effort can transform educational institutions and generate stronger financial and educational outcomes. Through comprehensive system redesign and enhanced coordination, we have achieved greater financial sustainability and increased enrollment while holding tuition flat for six consecutive years — a remarkable feat in public higher education.

It is with this perspective — appreciating the value, needs and possibilities — that I celebrate Gov. Josh Shapiro’s bold and comprehensive proposal to transform Pennsylvania’s public higher education sector.

The governor’s proposal is the most far-reaching call for a new public higher education system the country has seen in years. Gov. Shapiro’s blueprint for transformation focuses on driving down costs for students while simultaneously expanding access and opportunities. A key feature will be the creation of a comprehensive public system that encompasses the 10 PASSHE universities and the 15 community colleges. This bold proposal paves the way for seamless educational pathways and collaboration with key industries, thereby advancing the commonwealth’s competitiveness and economic development.

Importantly, the plan prioritizes greater financial investment in students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. Given that PASSHE universities and community colleges together serve nearly half of Pennsylvania’s low-income students, this initiative would be a bold step in ensuring that higher education remains accessible to all.

PASSHE has been rapidly evolving to meet the changing needs of students with a carefully planned strategy that has gained statewide and national attention. We intentionally have focused on maximizing the benefits of being a system to help our students and universities. But there is only so much we can do by ourselves. Gov. Shapiro sees the hard work we’ve done in our own system and seeks major reforms that go well beyond PASSHE — reforms that will help create the future we all want to see.

Envisioning this level of collaboration and systemness across all institutions presents an opportunity to transform the educational landscape for the better. By supporting Gov. Shapiro’s proposed reforms, we affirm our commitment to fostering educational excellence, social mobility and communal prosperity. This bold plan reflects the best of our Jewish values and will be transformative for the commonwealth. PJC

Cynthia Shapira is chair of the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

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