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Investing in state-owned universities is good for PA

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Pennsylvania businesses of all sizes and across many industries are struggling to find enough skilled workers for a tremendous number of open jobs. There were nearly 382,000 open jobs in Pennsylvania in March—70,000 more than people receiving unemployment. Our commonwealth lacks enough people with the education and training to fill all the jobs.

The problem isn’t new or unique to Pennsylvania, but the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the shortage of qualified workers. That talent gap is further evidence that Pennsylvania must re-invest in students at our state-owned universities.

The numbers tell the story. Nearly 60% of jobs in Pennsylvania require some level of higher education, but only about 51% of the workforce has it. The talent gap stretches across the largest industries from agribusinesses, information technology, business and finance to health care. These industries drive our economy and are the lifeblood of local communities.

The talent gap has grown as funding for public universities has lagged. Today, Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the nation for investments in state-owned, four-year universities like Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. Annual state funding has declined 35% ($252 million) since 2000/01 when adjusted for inflation.

If we’re going to strengthen our workforce with the talented and skilled people that employers need, then the legislature must reinvest in our State System universities.

I am proud to be part of the Foundation that provides financial support for 90,000 students at Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. The universities have campuses across the state that are uniquely focused on providing an affordable education for low- and middle-income students.

Our State System universities give students from our big cities to rural communities a career pathway to learn and work their way into the middle class and pursue the American dream.

Those exciting opportunities are changing students’ lives, with more than 70% of State System graduates staying in Pennsylvania. They get good jobs, plant roots in their community and build families and rewarding lives here. That’s one reason the State System of universities provide $4 billion in economic impact to the state.

As a former employer, I’m also proud that our universities are becoming more diverse. Nearly a quarter of the students are minorities, and a record 20 percent are adults. Today, three out of four minority graduates from low-income families rise to higher-income status and earn nearly as much as students from higher income families. That’s a tremendous achievement that also creates a more diverse pool of potential employees for Pennsylvania businesses.

As a retired healthcare executive, I experienced firsthand the struggle to find enough skilled workers for the number of jobs openings in healthcare. Over the years our organization partnered with the State System universities on a variety of programs in high demand disciplines (i.e., nursing, radiology, business). The State System universities provide a cost-effective option for student/employees to utilize a company’s tuition reimbursement program to continue to grow professionally.

The opportunity to expand these partnerships with investments from the legislature, as well as the PA business community, is a win-win for Pennsylvania. Providing cost-effective higher education and training programs for Pennsylvania high school students and adult learners is an investment in the future that will expand our workforce and has the potential to attract and retain key employers to the state.

Our State System universities are also redesigning to provide more value to students by ensuring they’re ready for jobs in high demand. Last year, the universities conferred nearly 24,000 degrees and certificates in high-growth fields like STEM, health, business, and education – all critical to addressing the labor shortage.

Our state-owned universities are an engine of workforce development and now the state must invest in the students and our economy.

In April, the State System’s Board of Governors voted to freeze tuition for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year, despite inflation worries. The vote was an act of faith in the General Assembly that legislators would fulfill their part of the ambitious System redesign by re-investing in the universities.

To offset the need of a tuition increase, the System is requesting $550 million from the state, a $75 million increase, as well as $201 million in direct-to-student aid to lower the cost to students and families, and at least $75 million of the remaining $150 million in federal funding the General Assembly and governor have committed to continue the robust transformation of state-owned universities.

I urge the legislature to provide the funding. The significance of the funding request demonstrates the urgency of this moment for universities in the State System and our workforce. Public higher education is the most cost-effective way to tackle our workforce shortages by preparing thousands of low- and middle-income students for careers in high demand and creating a pipeline of well-educated and skilled workers. The future of our businesses and Pennsylvania’s economy depends on it.

Lynn Miller is chair of the PASSHE Foundation Board of Directors and retired chief administrative officer at Geisinger Health System.