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Be clear on state's higher education plan

by Christopher M. Thomforde

August 29, 2011
Originally published in The Morning Call

My wife, Kathy, and I recently returned from a trip to China with students and faculty from Moravian College. We learned that the Chinese government has an aggressive plan to provide higher education opportunities for its people, in part by building 800 new universities. China's comprehensive plan will expand its university system on a grand scale and at a rapid pace.

In recent years, the Chinese government has built six new universities in Shanghai, each with around 15,000 students, clear missions, and plans for complete sets of classrooms, laboratories, student centers, athletic facilities, libraries, and student and faculty housing. All six were built in the same suburb, to create a modern version of Cambridge or Oxford.

Pennsylvania can also boast of a complex system of higher education, with some of the finest colleges and universities in the nation and several with worldwide reputations. But what is the comprehensive educational policy that guides the future development of this system? Upon what set of educational principles or public policies is state funding used to support this system and the students and faculty who study and carry out research at these schools?

Pennsylvania's community colleges provide access to advanced education for our citizens — students learn job skills or strengthen their academic skills to continue in four-year schools. As we consider a comprehensive policy for the commonwealth, community colleges must be recognized as an essential and integral part of Pennsylvania's educational plan.

Pennsylvania's System of Higher Education was intended to provide regional access to higher education, train teachers, and prepare men and women for the world of business — a compelling and healthy mission.

However, I must question the commonwealth's decision that allows for the state schools to offer Ph.D. programs. Pennsylvania's regional universities should continue to be supported according to their original missions, especially at a time of limited financial resources.

State-supported universities, such as Penn State, have long supported doctoral programs and advanced research. I would hope these schools aspire to be world-class centers for research and study and be funded accordingly. Funding doctoral programs at regional universities draws funds away from Penn State and other research universities.

Likewise, Penn State's extension campuses direct funds away from regional universities, undercutting their ability to fulfill their missions. For example, the Penn State-Lehigh Valley campus seems redundant. Why have a Penn State satellite in a community that supports two fine regional universities (Kutztown and East Stroudsburg), six excellent private colleges and universities, and two terrific community colleges (Lehigh Carbon and Northampton)? I believe the same confusion exists in Reading and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area with several institutions working at cross-purposes, rather than in a comprehensive and integrated way.

Finally, Pennsylvania is enriched by the many private colleges and universities. Indeed, Pennsylvania is one of the country's leading states in its number of private schools. Moravian College is proud to be one of them.

Private colleges and universities educate an increasing number of low-income students — about 39 percent of historically under-represented students. We generate nearly 50 percent of the state's bachelor's degrees, and our students have the highest four-year graduation rates in Pennsylvania. Together, we educate about 40 percent of college and university students in Pennsylvania, yet we receive about 11 percent of the commonwealth's funding for higher education.

Pennsylvania is blessed with a diversity of high-quality colleges and universities. But I believe we need to be clearer about mission and funding. What is the specific mission of each type of school and which population can it serve best? What academic programs should be funded to support these missions? How can colleges and universities work together to support each other in an integrated, comprehensive and coordinated way, rather than compete for students and tax dollars? How might we develop a comprehensive, statewide public policy for higher education to clarify appropriate institutional missions and direct state funding to support these institutions so they can live out their missions effectively?

I believe the time is right for our leaders in Harrisburg to address questions like these, to support our rich educational heritage and help it grow stronger into the future.

Christopher Thomforde is president of Moravian College.