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State higher ed system should not squander chance to lead: Our view

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Colleges and universities are changing faster than ever. They are adding new majors, creating services to help entrepreneurs and working more closely with the business community to help figure out what they should be teaching.

Are they changing fast enough?

It is a question we could pose of any industry, beset as many are by changing consumer tastes and growing competition online. But it is of special importance to higher education, which hews to traditions that, in some cases, are older than the Republic.

Young people and their parents pour millions of dollars every year into higher education in a bid to get a leg up on a career. Taxpayers also foot part of the bill, helping to ensure the riches of learning are shared more widely.

For decades, few questioned the value they were getting in return. But those days are long gone.

Students, parents and taxpayers all want to know what they can expect in return for their investments. When they hear college debt blamed for everything from a dearth of first-time home buyers to a decline in the U.S. fertility rate, who can blame them for being practical?

And to their credit, most colleges are starting to grapple with the economic realities faced by their customers.

It is an effort, though, that demands more creativity and more hard choices than we have seen to date. And that is why we wish the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education would adopt a more open mind toward the recent RAND Corp. report suggesting dramatic changes to the system’s 14 universities, which include two in Central Pennsylvania: Millersville and Shippensburg. Among the options are merging some schools or putting them under the auspices of state-related universities like Penn State.

The system is correct to point out that there is no guarantee of success and that the potential changes risk incurring costs or harming students. But change always incurs risk, as does inaction, especially in the face of declining enrollment and an increasingly pragmatic customer base.

Change also offers an opportunity to lead, and we urge the leaders of our state university system to embrace this one more fully. The next time may be too little too late.

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