By Ron Cowell and Diane Bosak
An Op-Ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Since President Barack Obama announced his bold proposal to provide free community college, there has been no shortage of supporters and detractors. While some have declared the proposal dead on arrival in Congress, Pennsylvanians need to consider how this concept and other ideas to expand access to postsecondary education can contribute to workforce development in the commonwealth.
The link between educational opportunity and workforce development is well understood. In Pennsylvania, we have tens of thousands of jobs available but a significant shortage of workers ready with the right skills.
Former Gov. Tom Corbett’s Commission on Higher Education emphasized the value of postsecondary education and its importance to workforce and economic development in our state. But little was done with the commission’s recommendations.
Throughout his campaign and since his election, Gov. Tom Wolf has emphasized the critical link between education and workforce development. To compete in a rapidly evolving and technology-oriented global economy, we must improve educational opportunity, including at the postsecondary level, for Pennsylvanians of all ages.
But other than our very significant Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency student-grant program, Pennsylvania fails miserably in most measures of higher education accessibility and affordability. We have low state financial support, high tuition rates and high student indebtedness.
We rank in the nation’s bottom five in state support for public higher education on a per-capita and a per-$1,000-of-personal-income basis. We rank in the top five in tuition for four-year colleges and in the top seven for two-year colleges. Average student indebtedness is among the highest in the country.
Pennsylvania also has serious gaps in postsecondary participation rates based upon family income, race and geography. People in many parts of the commonwealth simply lack access. While our overall degree-attainment rates are on par with the national average, one only has to look at a map of degree-holding adults to see that most areas of the commonwealth fall dismally far below the national average. In addition, we lag in associate degrees and other postsecondary credentials.
Part of the reason is that we have woefully underutilized community colleges as primary providers of workforce training and as a pathway to the baccalaureate. As a result, Pennsylvania might be one of the greatest beneficiaries of the president’s proposal since community college tuition in our state is among the highest in the nation and we have much room to expand the use of community colleges.
In many parts of the state, we also ineffectively link career-technical programs for high school students and adults to jobs that are currently or prospectively available. And we have few examples of effectively linking publicly funded career-technical schools to community-college resources.
The president’s proposal and the governor’s commitment should kick-start some strategic action to link our workforce-development objectives to career-technical and postsecondary education opportunities in Pennsylvania. There are a range of ideas to consider in addition to free or reduced community-college tuition.
We need to increase support for early education and fix Pennsylvania’s unfair and inadequate K-12 funding system. We need to improve the alignment between K-12 and higher education to clearly define college-readiness expectations for parents and students to help ensure that more high school graduates are academically ready for postsecondary education. Strengthening K-12 counseling programs would help students and parents understand what is required for postsecondary education but also to appreciate the job and career opportunities that exist and that require credentials short of a four-year degree.
Mr. Wolf already has emphasized the critical link between education and the workforce. He and his team must now lead an aggressive public and policymaker conversation about the best use of public resources to expand educational opportunities for all Pennsylvanians while responding to the workforce development needs of the commonwealth.
Ron Cowell is president of The Education Policy and Leadership Center, a statewide group focused on improving state education policy (firstname.lastname@example.org). Diane Bosak is former executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges and former chief executive for the Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Board (email@example.com).
Original post: Put Pennsylvanians to work: Gov. Wolf should retool postsecondary education to fill the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s employers, by Ron Cowell and Diane Bosak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 02/11/15