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Just Say No to Governor Shapiro’s Performance-based Budgeting for Public Higher Education

This proposal is akin to putting PASSHE institutions into a pressure cooker and threatening them to grow or die, write concerned West Chester University faculty members.
Governor Josh Shapiro visited West Chester University with local and legislative leaders. Photo courtesy of @WCUofPA.

Written by Concerned West Chester University Faculty

Pennsylvania higher education is at a crossroads, and it’s important that policymakers make informed decisions about some big next steps.

Governor Shapiro made a huge announcement in his 2024-2025 budget address last month, laying out a new vision for publicly-owned universities and community colleges. As stated by the Governor, every Pennsylvanian deserves “accessible, affordable higher education” if they so choose. 

Shapiro painted a pretty picture in this announcement, part of which we support. He called for a 15% increase in public higher education funding as well as a program that caps tuition and fees at $1,000 for students from families making under the median household income (approx. $73,000). 

But his proposal also calls for performance-based budgeting, making state appropriations for higher education dependent on certain metrics. 

Although the metrics will be open for debate as the legislation moves through Harrisburg, Shapiro’s announcement lists the following criteria on which schools will need to perform to receive state dollars:

The number of first-generation college students that receive credentials

The graduation rate

Increasing enrollments

Recruiting and supporting students in fields facing workforce shortages

Though the president of (state-related) Penn State penned an op-ed welcoming such metrics, and these metrics sound altruistic, we in PASSHE shouldn’t be fooled. Whether he knows it or not, the 15% increase in state money Shapiro is offering, and the scholarship funding for median income students, are bait. We shouldn’t take it.

Why should we be skeptical of performance-based budgeting? If funding for public higher education is contingent upon schools meeting outcomes set by Harrisburg, our historic institutions will become beholden to numbers and datasets at the expense of quality education. If they don’t post high numbers, they’ll face cuts. For schools, programs, and disciplines that are already struggling due to decades of underfunding, performance-based metrics would only deepen their woes. Students’ degree options and college experiences would be further limited, and campus workers’ livelihoods would be at risk. 

READ: Starve or Quit: Some College Students’ Only Options

The criteria will come to shape every administrative decision, chilling new initiatives and readying the knives for cuts. Those that don’t hit all of the targets, or simply don’t hit all of the targets quickly enough for the annual budget assessment, will be eliminated regardless of their educational value. 

What’s more, performance-based budgeting will pit our public institutions against one another. Even if the system gets a 15% increase, universities will need to fight for those dollars by enrolling and retaining more students than their sibling-schools. High-enrollment schools with stable budgets and robust campus opportunities will be rewarded at the expense of schools struggling from chronic state divestment and the recent consolidation chaos, threatening the “systemness” of the system. This would further increase already existing disparities for communities in more rural parts of the Commonwealth. 

Evidence of these miseries is easy to find. Just look a few states over to what is happening at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG). When the state government put in performance-based budgeting in 2022 using metrics that sound a lot like the ones Shapiro is proposing, the UNCG crashed, cutting whole programs and departments, independently of their performance on the state’s metrics. 

When it comes to public higher education, performance-based budgeting is a threat, where we need to be generous. State governments have choices. One choice is Gov. Shapiro’s path of putting institutions into the pressure cooker and threatening them to grow or die while sweetening the deal with nice-sounding scholarships and one-time infusions of cash. 

Another is PA Senate Bill 111, sponsored by Senator Vincent Hughes, dubbed the Pennsylvania Promise. The PA Promise is a more comprehensive scholarship program, covering tuition and fees for every PASSHE student from a family making under $200,000 per year. And, for students from families making under $60,000 they would also have room and board covered, all without the metrics’ threat. 

Let’s make a promise to Pennsylvania’s students rather than a threat.

Signed by: David I. Backer, David Bolton, Benjamin Brumley, Pier Cicerelle, Tim Dougherty, John Elmore, Andrew Famiglietti, Kelly Goodman, Erin Hurt, Daniela Johannes, Cristóbal Cardemil Krause, Benjamin Kuebrich, Curry Malott, Paul Morgan, Dana Morrison, Liam Lair, Meg Panichelli, Janneken Smucker, Justin Sprague, Tabassum Ruby, Jason Wozniak

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