Higher ed officials see affordability, community colleges as bridge to student recovery

Ohio Department of Higher Education Chancellor Randy Gardner addresses a House subcommittee addressing the needs of the state's colleges and universities.

Affordability and equity are at the top of the list as higher education officials look at their operating budget for the next two years, and it’s up to the state to help.

State leaders speaking for community colleges and state higher education in general at Tuesday’s House Finance Subcommittee on Higher Education pushed on the need for more high school-to-college and college-to-workforce pipelines to attract students not only to Ohio’s education institutions, but to return after leaving for a number of reasons.

The subcommittee is currently reviewing the operating budget, and has spent the last week talking to representatives ranging from the Ohio History Connection, the state libraries and Ohio Citizens for the Arts, along with Tuesday’s meeting with those in higher education.

Randy Gardner, chancellor for the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said shortening the bridge from high school to college can happen through an expansion of the College Credit Plus program, which allows high schools students to take college classes during their high school years.

“We still have standards, standards are important, but we want to provide as much access as possible to allow as many students as possible to take advantage of this,” Gardner told the House Finance Subcommittee on Higher Education.

But higher ed officials see a change in the demographics of “college-age” students, and want to bring in the 1.5 million adults that have taken college courses but haven’t finished, and those who may have never seen post-secondary education as an option.

“We want to do more to bring them back… and to be involved in higher education because we think it’s not only good for them, it’s good for the state,” Gardner said.

In Gov. Mike DeWine’s executive budget proposal, state support to colleges and universities — called the state share of instruction subsidy (SSI) — would increase 1.8% over the biennium. That subsidy has stayed at the same level over the last few years, representing $1.98 billion in 2019 and $1.94 in 2020, before 2021’s estimated increase to more than $2 billion.

Also a part of the move to attract diversified college students, Gardner said $4.5 million has already been implemented in the education budget to fund community colleges over the next two years. The money was placed in the budget through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. The fund distributed monies received from the U.S. Department of Education as part of COVID-19 relief.

Community colleges need all the help they can get, according to Jack Hershey, of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

Hershey told the subcommittee the state has seen a 10% drop in enrollment in community colleges, with a 14% drop specifically in white male enrollment and 19% drop in Black male enrollment.

“The most encouraging news is that despite the enrollment decline we have seen, overall interest has increased over the pandemic,” Hershey said.

Data shows motivation for getting more community college education has shifted, Hershey said, focusing more on the need to pay bills and take care of financial needs.

“This suggests to us that in the aftermath of the pandemic, individuals want a job, and they want it quickly,” Hershey said. “Marketing a Bachelor’s degree or even an Associate’s degree to them would be a mistake.”

Those that decide to get a Bachelor’s degree or Associate’s have to deal with issues of affordability, which is a priority for the state and the budget proposal, Gardner said.

“I think that it is possible to make the statement that over the last five years and perhaps even increased over the last two years, a higher education in Ohio, or degree or a credential, is more affordable than it was five years ago,” Gardner said.

Scholarships like the Ohio College Opportunity Grant and Choose Ohio First are set to increase under the budget proposal, with OCOG to get a raise of $500 per student, and at least 2,000 new scholarships under COF, if approved by the legislature.

Gardner also said College Credit Plus has sped up the way in which students get their college degree without spending the equivalent of a four-year stint at a college or university.

“I’ve met students who graduated from college before they graduated from high school,” Gardner said, adding that about 2,600 Associate’s degrees were granted in the state in the last year before those students graduated high school.

Despite the affordability Gardner says is increasing in the state, he pushed back on a question from the committee suggesting that free market rules and business competitiveness be applied to state universities and colleges. He said he has received the question from legislators in the past, and his opinion remains the same: Because the two-year and four-year public colleges and universities are regulated by the state and use taxpayer dollars, the state should help out.

“I do believe it’s fair to say that the state government has an obligation to be a part of that affordability,” Gardner said. “I do believe we have an obligation as state leaders…that we should be able affordability and providing guidelines and some guard rails around potentially increasing costs of tuition or of fees and other things that might deter some students from gaining a college degree.”

Gardner said the state’s higher education institutions have “about the right balance between oversight, support and freedom and flexibility for them to make decisions on their college campuses.”

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