Pennsylvania Governor’s Higher Education Overhaul Focuses on College Access and Affordability

The plan includes consolidating state universities and community colleges into one higher education system and capping tuition for students from lower-income families.
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Updated on March 27, 2024
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  • Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro released his plan for higher education on Jan. 26, 2024.
  • The "Blueprint for Higher Education" focuses on three key areas, one being college affordability.
  • One of the key proposals is to cap tuition and fees at $1,000 for students whose families make up to the median income in the state.

At the beginning of the year, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro announced his plan for the state's higher education institutions.

The "Blueprint for Higher Education" would invest over a billion dollars into what Shapiro calls a "broken" higher education system. Shapiro's administration says Pennsylvania ranks 49th in the country for state investment in higher education and 48th in higher education affordability.

While the cost to run colleges and universities has increased, state funding has been stagnant for over a decade. The state spent $2 billion on higher education this year — nearly unchanged from the amount allocated 16 years ago, according to The Associated Press.

The blueprint includes three parts:

  • Overhauling the state university and community college systems and uniting them under one system
  • Capping tuition and fees at $1,000 per semester for eligible students whose families make up to the median income
  • Creating a performance-based funding model for all state institutions

The plan would impact all 15 state community colleges, along with Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) schools, including Kutztown, Shippensburg, and West Chester universities.

"After 30 years of disinvestment, too many of our colleges and universities are running on empty, and not enough students have affordable pathways through college and into good jobs," Shapiro said during a visit to Reading Area Community College.

The plan would include $975 million in funding for universities in the PASSHE system and community colleges, a 15% increase compared to last year.

"I know some folks look at my plan and say it's too bold and that we can't afford it right now," Shapiro said. "But I say we can't afford not to invest right now — we have a $14 billion surplus, and we are facing real challenges in education and with our workforce that will hold us back in the future if we don't take action right now."

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (ED), there are currently over 60,000 jobs in the state that require postsecondary credentials that the state's institutions are not producing. The department estimates the gap will expand to over 218,000 in eight years if nothing is done.

A New Public System of Higher Education

The first proposal in the governor's plan is to create an entirely new higher education system with a new governance structure where PASSHE universities and community colleges would be equal partners.

On a visit to the Community College of Allegheny County, Shapiro said he hoped to see the new system take form by the end of the year, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

According to the Pennsylvania ED report, under the new system, the state plans to honor all union contracts for bargaining units at state-run institutions and does not plan to dissolve local community college governing boards.

Making Tuition Affordable

The second proposal would allow students whose families make up to the median income level, around $70,000, to pay only $1,000 per semester in tuition and fees.

The tuition assistance would be available to full-time students, as well as those learning part time on a prorated basis, as long as they are enrolled in at least three credits per semester in a certificate or degree program.

The proposal would also give an extra $1,000 in financial aid to eligible students at state or independent institutions, an offer also available to part-time students on a prorated basis.

Redesigned Funding Formula

According to the state ED, Pennsylvania is one of only 10 states that does not have a funding formula for its postsecondary institutions, meaning that funds allocated to each school are unpredictable and can change each year.

The third proposal would implement a predictable funding formula implemented across all state-run institutions.

According to the state ED, the formula would have two sets of outcomes: common goals of all institutions such as increasing graduation rates and closing achievement gaps, and specific goals that are aligned with each institution's mission. There would also be more weight in the formula for schools that require more resources and support from the state.

Lawmakers Consider the Proposal

The state Legislature must approve the proposed policies before the governor signs them into law. With Democrats having a majority in the state House and Republicans controlling the state Senate, Shapiro will have to get both chambers to agree on a budget before the state's June 30 deadline.

In response to Shapiro's announcement of the project, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said that he believes the plan is "well-intended," but had some reservations about the size of the effort.

"The types of changes being proposed are no small undertaking and notably absent from the announcement is the amount of funding required to effectuate the plan," he said.

"Two key considerations with any substantive changes must be the additional costs to taxpayers, as well as the impact on local communities where our state's higher education institutions are located."