Pennsylvania lawmakers looking into changes in higher education funding are focused on how to balance increasing access to higher education with a changing marketplace.

The Public Higher Education Funding Commission is working to develop a funding formula for the state’s public institutions.

As part of their work, the 19-member commission, which recently held a pair of hearings at West Chester University’s Business and Public Management Center, is identifying factors to determine the distribution of funding among state schools.

“The industrial economy is a thing of the past, and so should the industrial version of education where we assume that we can teach every student to a standardized, synchronized approach,” state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-West Whiteland, said during the hearing. “… So how do we now create a new structural arrangement?”

Laura Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said achieving statewide goals should sit at the center of any approach.

“Increasing degree attainment is not as simple as giving more resources to institutions that have higher graduation rates,” Perna told the commission. “So if we have a funding formula that rewards certain outcomes, graduation rates, for example, we have to recognize the potential unintended consequences of having that metric alone.”

Perna suggested lawmakers would not want to incentivize a funding formula that pushes institutions to enroll only the students who are the easiest to serve.

“I would suggest that the goals should include things like enabling and incentivizing institutions to use the resources they have to increase higher education opportunity and outcomes for underserved students, recognizing differences in institutional mission and then finally ensuring that all Pennsylvania residents have geographic access to high quality higher education,” Perna said.

Brian Fleming, vice president of innovation and strategy at Southern New Hampshire University, urged lawmakers to seek clarity rather than certainty.

“We in higher ed are really down on ourselves right now,” Fleming said. “‘We’re not changing fast enough; we’re changing too fast.’ I actually would propose that it’s not a question of whether you’re changing fast or slow. It’s not really a question of whether you’re going to get disrupted or upended or pushed out of your market or whether you’re going to be the disruptor. You don’t really know, but you can adapt, and you can think critically about the world around you.”

Pennsylvania, like other states, is grappling with building a workforce that meets the changing needs of the economy — and how lawmakers should allocate tax dollars to support that mission.

“When a paradigm changes and when an economic imperative becomes a reality, never assume that what brought you success in the previous paradigm will bring you success today, and indeed that’s the reason we usually fail,” Dinniman said. “And I’ll take the liberty of saying if we’re gonna revise the State System of Higher Education … you can’t assume that structure that was of the past will continue to work in a new economy and in a new way.”

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