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Pa. lawmakers wrestle with Shapiro’s higher education funding proposal

Three men sit shoulder to shoulder.
Blaine Shahan
LNP | LancasterOnline
Pennsylvania Sen. Scott Martin, left, and Rep. Jordan Harris listen to Gov. Josh Shapiro speak during a news conference in Millersville University’s Student Memorial Center Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

State lawmakers on Wednesday questioned a higher education official about Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposal to merge Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities and community colleges under the same oversight umbrella.

Daniel Greenstein, chief executive of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education and the lone testifier to meet with members of the House and Senate, said he broadly supported Shapiro’s proposal but wasn’t involved in drafting it beyond informal conversations with officials.

Senate Republicans followed Greenstein’s testimony with criticism of Shapiro’s plan during their morning hearing, arguing that his experience should have influenced the proposal. Members also called for state-system education funding to be linked to universities’ enrollment and graduation rates.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Scott Martin of Martic Township said lawmakers often overlook how state-system schools determine their costs. To resolve this, he wants to hold schools to standards that assure “efficient and effective” results.

In the afternoon, House Democrats raised concerns about maintaining affordability for Pennsylvania students and improving enrollment among underrepresented minority groups.

House Appropriations Chairman Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat and Millersville University alum, specifically mentioned his apprehension toward the proposal’s use of performance-based funding, which he said has harmed historically Black colleges and universities.

Millersville is the only state-system school in Lancaster County. The other 10 state-owned institutions span Pennsylvania, from Edinboro University in Erie to Cheyney University in Delaware County. Their combined enrollment is more than 82,000 students.

The state’s 15 community colleges, which educate about 230,000 students, don’t have an oversight board that functions like PASSHE.

Shapiro’s pitch, announced at the annual budget address held earlier this month, included $975 million in funding to get the new system up and running as well as a 15% increase over the amount of funding state-system universities and community colleges received last year.

Hearings for lawmakers to debate Shapiro’s budget, totaling $48.3 billion, will run for the next few months, but formal negotiations over finalizing next year’s budget won’t ramp up until the June 30 deadline nears.

Greenstein’s organization is seeking about $624 million in this year’s budget, a $38 million increase over the current fiscal year’s funding, according to its annual accountability report released last week.

Greenstein said those dollars would help state-system schools freeze their tuition increases, as they have for the past six years, which has helped improve enrollment rates.

“For every dollar the state invests, there’s an eight-fold increase in economic impact,” Greenstein said. He added that graduates of state-system universities tend to stay in Pennsylvania after school instead of moving to other states.

Read more from our partners, WITF.