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From the Eyes of the President: On the Cost of Education

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The higher education landscape, in my mind, is not sustainable. I think it’s a model from the past that does not align with the economy of the 21st century. I think we’re seeing the cracks everywhere. We have decreasing enrollments, we have spiraling costs, large amounts of capital debt and we have a large number of graduates who do not fit the needs of the economy. These are real issues that we’re seeing everywhere in higher education, and they are the things we have to address.

How successfully are America’s postsecondary institutions meeting the workforce needs of today’s economy?

They’re clearly not meeting the needs to the extent that is required. Last year, on our campus we had 1,400 employers with 3,000 jobs for 400 graduates. There’s a huge skills gap in America, and it’s being exacerbated by the number of Baby Boomers who are retiring. In some cases, 30 to 40 percent of the current workforce is eligible for retirement or is going to be in the next few years. So, set aside industrial expansion; just meeting current employment needs is beyond the capacity of the system we have now.

In fact, we have a large number of unfilled jobs in America. These are good jobs—in many cases, they are manufacturing jobs that have family-sustaining wages, good benefits, and allow employees to drive the economy, buy homes, buy cars, take vacations. At the same time, we have a large number of four-year college graduates who are living at home with huge amounts of debt and working in low-wage jobs with few benefits because the skills and education that they received did not give them the types of competencies that are required in the workforce today.

According to government data published by Edvisors.com, the average student loan debt was $35,000 for the Class of 2015, up from $15,000 in 1998. To what do you attribute the explosion in loan debt?

The financial aid system can’t meet the spiraling increases in costs of tuition and fees that we find in higher education, and I think it is the result of a couple of things.

Higher education took on more capital debt than any other sector of the economy over the last 40 or 50 years, including healthcare. We went on these huge spending sprees. We have these huge performing arts centers and athletic facilities. We have incredible amenities, climbing walls, lazy rivers, restaurants, cafés, individual bathrooms, individual apartments. These things cost money, and the bills are coming due.

The other thing that I see is the exponential growth in administration. Some of that is in response to the huge amount of compliance that is a burden to all of us. These rules and regulations are often well-intentioned, and we have to comply with them, but we’re not given any money to do that. In general, higher ed responded by adding large numbers of staff. But this huge growth of administrators has added to the costs. It used to be, you had one dean of students. Now you have a Title IX director, inclusion and diversity staff, and others. You’ve got information technology people who are vice presidents now with many people reporting to them. We have provosts, associate
provosts, deans, assistant deans, assistant department
heads and a million administrative assistants.

Those things together—the amenities race and the increase in staff who are not directly involved in teaching—have driven these costs to the point that they are not sustainable any longer.

In what ways is Thaddeus Stevens intentionally different than typical postsecondary institutions today?

We start with our mission. Everything is based on the mission of the institution, the legacy of our founder, Thaddeus Stevens, and the principles he espoused and lived by.

And we measure everything that we do. That’s the only way we’re going to know if our performance is matching our purpose. Are we institutionally effective? We create objective performance measures across every activity area of the institution that are derived directly from the mission, and we establish goals based on that.

That starts with our most important thing, which is our learner outcomes. When students come to our campus, we test them across the board on their technical skills as well as what we call general education skills—problem-solving, critical thinking, English, math. We establish that baseline.

We take no credit for the knowledge that they brought to the campus. Two years later, we do the exact same thing, and we measure them again. We take all the credit in the world for what happened over those two years.

That is how we talk about the value that we add to students in an objective, empirical way. I don’t know of anybody else who is doing that. I hear people at other institutions talk about the broad knowledge, critical thinking and problemsolving skills their students obtained while they’re there, but they can’t demonstrate that. And they don’t share that information. We share that information with our faculty—the good, the bad and the ugly—and we post that information our website.

...higher education is mismatched with the needs of the economy, to me the only way we’re going to be able to accomplish that is
through information...

I think that’s what’s different about our model. It’s mission-driven, it’s outcome-driven and we measure everything that we do.

How have you been able to sustain your performance over time?

We’re an anomaly in the higher education landscape today. We had had 2,800 students apply last year—that’s 300 more than the year before—for 700 openings. Our cost per student based on our state appropriation went down $800 last year, because we increased enrollment but maintained costs. And then we’re placing 90-some percent of our graduates, with many of our programs at 100 percent. In our business model, all of our programs here have to have strong outcomes. They have to be able to produce graduates who get jobs in their field with family-sustaining wages. Graduates have to be satisfied with the education they got, employers have to be satisfied with our graduates, and we want to know where they are five years after they graduate. And if programs don’t perform, then we don’t have them anymore, and we create other programs that can do that. And finally, our programs are shaped by, and we have an intimate relationship with, our employer base.

We intentionally use technology to keep our costs down. We have one of the lowest faculty to staff ratios that you’re going to find anywhere. We have very little in the way of administration. We really try to use technology to gain the advantages we need.

Do you feel other institutions could replicate this model?

Every higher education institution has a different purpose. Two year institutions vs. one-year institutions vs. four-year institutions vs. tier 1 research institutions, we have different missions. But one thing that we should share in common is performance.

We should share the performance of our programs to prospective students and their parents. And if those are good outcomes, then I think the federal government and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should invest in those things, as I think parents and students would. I think it’s only fair to disclose this information to people so they can make informed decisions about the education they are about to embark on. If I was investing in a car or a home, I would want to know as much as I could about them. I think those elements of our model are applicable across the board—whether you are a Tier I institution or a one-year proprietary school.

Over 90 percent of students say the reason they go to college or postsecondary education is so they can get a really good job when they graduate and have a good life and provide for their families. So, if our programs aren’t doing that, then we’re not going to have those programs. And if you don’t measure your programs, you don’t know. If you go to other institutions and ask them for that information, they say they don’t have it.

They have information about a lot of things that I don’t think are important—like the speed of their athletes in the 40-yard dash, what’s on the menu, how many climbing walls they have, and all their amenities. That’s interesting information, but it’s not the
primary reason you’re going to school.

What advice would you give to young people considering a postsecondary degree today?

Ask good questions. If you’re looking at us and comparing us to another institution, we might not be the right fit for you. But the critical questions are: How many students started this program, and how many graduated? How many grads got jobs in their
field? What was their median starting salary? How satisfied were they? How satisfied are their employers? Where are they five years after graduating? And how much student loan debt did they have at graduation?

Do you see any signs that the system is changing?

If we, as a nation, are going to try and solve this issue in a broader context, that higher education is mismatched with the needs of the economy, to me the only way we’re going to be able to accomplish that is through information. Publishing the performance of programs for students and parents won’t cost anything, really.

And that’s the only way we’re going to create movement to align higher education with the needs of the economy. It can’t just be money. With all the things that are facing our nation, and facing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania today, the pie is not going to get any larger. You have a lot of things vying for those monies.

You have K-12 education, you have infrastructure issues, you have healthcare with an aging population, and you’ve got
higher education in there with everybody else.

To me, the most politically feasible thing is to stop funding intuitions or using historical funding patterns but to fund programs based on their performance.

Drawing in and Empowering Women in STEM

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Education paired with local pioneers are impacting girls' initiatives in STEM fields in school and the workplace.

By Cindy Kalinoski / Photo by Donovan Roberts Witmer 

Whether you define it as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) or add in the “A” for art (STEAM), skills in these disciplines are what employers need. Overall, there aren’t enough students choosing these fields, and women represent a finish minority. Intentionally training and directing more women toward STEM careers is a must to add diverse thinking and reduce the field’s male/female wage gap. Equipping women with strategies for thriving in male-dominated workplaces is equally important. 

Local education initiatives are making a difference, and so are pioneers. Armed with a degree in machine, tool & CAD (Computer-Aided Design) from Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology in Lancaster, PA, Andrea Biesecker has become the first female locomotive engineer at Strasburg Railroad (stevenscollege.edu).

STEAMing Ahead

Some of Andrea Biesecker’s friends can’t wait to leave work and come home. Not Biesecker. She sees her job as an opportunity: “Some days I get to be engineer on a locomotive. Others, I get to work in the shop. And I get to time-warp myself back to the 1915 era we’re portraying, when steam was king.” 

Biesecker appreciates the sustainability angle steam locomotives present: “The fun part about machining here is you get to make a part to replace one that’s been in existence for 100-plus years. It’s not like making 10,000 hair dryers. Everything is hand-built, maybe the only part like it in the world, and I get to be the one to make it and make sure it’ll last another 100 years. It means more, because everything we make here is timeless. Rather than ending up in a landfill, it’ll be used and eventually be in a museum.”

Starting Small

Her journey began as her dad’s sidekick in his machine shop, where he tinkered with a junked antique bulldozer. First, she held a drop light for him, then moved up to “a little welding, a little machining, a little mechanical work, painting and then operating.” In the process, she learned something about herself: she was good with mechanical things. 

“It’s like when people don’t need to really practice a musical instrument,” Biesecker says. “It kind of comes naturally. You’re born with that. Everybody’s good at something; you just have to figure out what that is.” She concedes machining’s not for everyone, but believes “if you’re mechanically and mathematically inclined and you try it, it might be your thing.” 

Biesecker discarded the idea of being an accountant to combine her hobbies with her career. “We always went to Rough & Tumble at Kinzers, where I fell in love with steam-powered equipment,” she recalls. “I thought it would be really neat to work at the Strasburg Railroad, and then I thought, ‘What am I going to do there?’”

When she graduated from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, she was the only female in all of her classes. Since then, the college has focused on women in STEM, attracting National Science Foundation funding and partnering with 11 school districts to encourage younger girls to investigate these careers.

These days, there would be other female students in Biesecker’s classes. But few will land at Strasburg Railroad, where she is an engineer and the Repair & Restoration Project Coordinator. She makes parts. Builds and restores trains. Travels to other railroads to assess equipment and estimate jobs. And she’s “Percy’s mom.” 

Building Celebrities

You might not know Percy, but you’d recognize his friend, Thomas the Tank Engine. Biesecker led a successful build, from scratch, of this replica steam engine. She notes, “The kids are ecstatic. Their faces light up. It’s basically pulling something out of a book or a movie or TV, and this one is life-sized.” For 4 year olds, she says, “these trains are celebrities.”

People are skeptical when Biesecker tells people what she does. She admits the railroad industry can be “intimidating as all get out, and you can feel alone,” since it’s traditionally male. Her advice? “Gain respect and trust with your skill set and focus on common interests.” That’s what she tries to do. 

Imagine walking into your classroom, designing a paper rocket, launching it, and then tweaking it to fly higher. That’s what happens on the first day of school in the Tech & Design class at Linden Hall, an all girls private school in Lititz, PA (lindenhall.org). 

Here, girls in grades 6-12 learn via real-life, hands-on projects incorporating science, technology, engineering, art or math (STEAM) concepts into all subjects. But the school’s new Makerspace is where this comes fully to life. Girls can ramp up their creativity with tools like soldering irons, saws and drills, a 3D printer, and a video suite. 

Last year’s students identified the engineering principles behind Olympic ski jumps…and then built them. They designed and constructed two staircases for the school’s musical, then worked in pairs to design and print their own chess sets.

Charged with inventing something, students seemed stuck and progress stalled. Makerspace Director Michele Archer had them take a break, then make a Halloween decoration out of “garbage” items in the classroom, like glass containers, string, and milk cartons. “They kind of went crazy,” Archer recalls, “and they weren’t afraid to try goofy things. When they went back to the original project, they had a little more freedom in their creativity.” These experiences help prepare girls for the jobs of the future.

Getting Students Job-Ready 

At York County School of Technology, the focus is on getting kids interested in STEM fields and work-ready earlier (ytech.edu). Pennsylvania is a top 10 state for STEM jobs, and while the demand for these types of skills is exploding, there aren’t enough qualified workers today or for future openings. A new camp, YCST, offered in partnership with York City’s Lincoln Intermediate Unit, introduces girls as well as boys as young as 8 to these fields. The camp atmosphere seems to be more approachable for girls than your typical tech production environment; several returned two months later when the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education highlighted the school on his #SummerOfSTEM tour. 

Instructor Bob Bierman says, “The kids are definitely excited about manufacturing that incorporates technology and also about entry level jobs for high school graduates with certifications that pay $15-18 per hour.” For high schoolers, attendance at YCST is free. They can earn a high school diploma along with industry certifications and even college credits. Utilizing robotic arms and high-tech production devices, instructors help students gain proficiency in programming along with analytical problem-solving. Bierman says this is especially valuable if a production run stops in the middle of the night. 

Because students in the school’s Engineering & Advanced Manufacturing classes learn skills companies need, they’re employable as soon as they graduate. The Mechatronics program, which merges concepts from mechanical engineering, electronics, and technology, has a 100 percent job placement rate. Equipping a coed generation as technology rapidly changes the face of manufacturing is a challenge. Bierman explains, “It’s important to interest girls as well as boys in this field, because the need is so great. We’re teaching them STEM skills and the digital language through hands-on, practical applications. In the process, we help prepare them for a future we can’t even imagine yet.” 

Empowering Women in STEM

Research indicates that 70 percent of future workers will need STEM skills, but companies are already finding qualified people scarce. One factor is that, while women make up almost half the general workforce, they represent only 24 percent in STEM fields (under 15 percent in architecture and engineering). 

Dr. Bili Mattes of Harrisburg University of Science & Technology (HU) and Executive Director of the STEMup Network, calls this “heartbreaking” (harrisburgu.edu, stemupnetwork.org). The University is feeding the pipeline, with more than half of HU’s student population in graduate programs including analytics, microbiology, and “techpreneurship.” Half of the overall student population is female as is a third of the graduate population. 

Dr. Mattes says retention is also critical, since half of women employed in STEM leave after 10-12 years (and many within just one year). These trends motivated Mattes to co-found STEMup Network, a social enterprise of HU that assists women already working in these fields. The network helps recruit, develop, and retain women already working in STEM sectors. Included in this group are women who work as engineers, web designers, and in other career spaces where women are in the minority.

Today, 600 participants comprise the growing STEMup Network, which offers mentoring and coaching, leadership programs, learning circles, and professional development. Some companies are unrolling initiatives to develop women in STEM careers, but Dr. Mattes says it’s helpful to have an external professional resource as well, especially if you change jobs.  

In September, Rubina Azizdin was hired as STEMup Network Director. She says, “Research indicates women feel undermined in these roles, or aren’t comfortable, or don’t have support from company leadership or mentors. This program provides all of that.” She plans to partner with more schools and companies, and she envisions growing the program’s social media presence and raising visibility in the community. “We want people to know there is this valuable resource they can use.”

You can find the article in the Susquehanna Style - November 2018 Edition. 

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