State system seeks to fill labor gap, but needs help [column] | Local voices

The labor shortage and all those signs of “needing help” are just the tip of the iceberg for the Pennsylvania labor force. The state has a significant talent gap – the difference between the number of college-educated workers that companies need versus the number of our workforce. This is a problem which concerns us all and which testifies to the urgency of investing in public higher education.

Today, about 60% of jobs in Pennsylvania require college education, but only 51% of adults here have it. This large gap stretches across the essential industries that people depend on, including healthcare, education, information technology, agribusiness and more.

The fact is, businesses won’t have the workers they need – and the products and services everyone relies on – unless more middle- and low-income students can afford to go to college. university. And while public universities in Pennsylvania are the most affordable four-year colleges in the state, years of delayed state funding have taken their toll. Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the nation for investment in public four-year universities like the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education; it’s no surprise that the average net price of attending a public university has risen more than 50% over the past decade and caused a 26% drop in enrollment.

These rising costs have made the dream of earning a degree or certificate unaffordable for too many high school leavers or adults looking to retrain. Middle- and low-income students – the people public higher education is there to support and need to address labor shortages – are in particular pressure.

Without them, employers will struggle to hire enough college-educated workers in the future. There just aren’t enough upper- and upper-middle-income students to fill all those jobs. Pennsylvania’s economic future—and the success of businesses big and small—depends on lowering the cost of studying at a public university.

The good news is that the roadmap is there to address this issue, and universities in the state system are primed and ready to build a strong talent pipeline.

In 2020, the state legislature passed a law known as Bill 50, creating a partnership with universities and the state. The state-owned university system would revamp, and the legislature and governor would provide more funding for public higher education and its students.

The state system keeps its promises with a difficult but necessary overhaul. The results are positive, with universities working with students, faculty and communities to create innovative solutions that meet all the criteria.

Today, universities don’t spend more than they earn, like families in Pennsylvania. And the state system has saved $173 million and counts by cutting costs to avoid tuition increases for three unprecedented straight years. This is a huge turnaround after years of annual tuition hikes.

The state system also produces results for the workforce. Since 2016, the number of degree-seeking students pursuing certificates with their degrees has increased by more than 70 percent, and the number of high school students taking college courses in the state system has doubled. Last year, universities awarded nearly 24,000 degrees and certificates in high-demand fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), health, business and education, all essential to remedy labor shortages in key industries.

In short, we have resolved our structural issues, made tough decisions, and remain focused on providing students with a high-quality education that prepares them for great careers.

Now is the time to tackle the issue of affordability for students. The leaders of the state system have made a funding request to the General Assembly that is significant, but so are the benefits to our state.

The application includes three critical investments:

— First, $550 million, an increase of $72 million, to contain tuition fees for a fourth consecutive year. This would be great news for college students, 90% of whom come from Pennsylvania.

— Second, $201 million for student financial assistance, especially important for underrepresented students in rural and urban communities.

— Third, at least $75 million of the remaining $150 million in federal funds earmarked for the state system to continue its robust transformation.

The importance of this funding request demonstrates the urgency of the needs of the state system. It allows Pennsylvania to build on the Commonwealth’s commitment to increase funding for its public universities, avoid an increase in student tuition, and keep a degree or certificate close at hand for graduates. low- and middle-income hard-working students.

Equally important, it also puts the state on the path to addressing labor shortages by ensuring businesses and employers can hire the graduates they need. This means good jobs, thriving employers and thriving communities for years to come.

Daniel Greenstein became the fifth chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education in 2018. He previously led the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Post-Secondary Success Strategy.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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