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Pedro Rivera at the AL DÍA Higher Ed Leaders Summit 2019. Photo: Alan Simpson / AL DÍA News
Pedro Rivera at the AL DÍA Higher Ed Leaders Summit 2019. Photo: Alan Simpson / AL DÍA News

A call to action for greater higher ed access in PA

Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera made the case for ensuring that more Pennsylvanians have access to higher education throughout the…

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On Jan. 31, Pedro Rivera, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (DOE), delivered the keynote speech and call to action at the AL DÍA Higher Ed Leaders Summit.

Rivera highlighted the case, as he described it, for all constituents and leaders in higher education to focus on improving access for all people to higher education in a state where, as Rivera noted, the issue is not that there are not enough jobs for those who hold degrees - it’s, in fact, the reverse.

“There isn’t a jobs gap in Pennsylvania, there’s a skills gap in Pennsylvania,” said Rivera, noting that over the next decade, statistics show that more than 70 percent of jobs in the state will require some type of industry certificate, two-year degree, four-year degree, or advanced degree. Currently, just 40 percent of Pennsylvania residents hold those credentials.

That skills gap can be closed by ensuring that more Pennsylvanians have access to the necessary resources to enroll in, and complete, higher education programs, as well as by working to keep more graduates of higher education programs based in Pennsylvania in the state after they complete their degree programs, to join the state’s workforce.

Rivera noted that there are limits to what the state government can do to accomplish the goals for advancing equity and involvement in higher education for Latinos and other underrepresented groups.

“The role of government isn’t technically to create things. The role of government is to set conditions so that individuals, practitioners, leaders like you can best serve your communities, to push, in this case, higher ed and the workforce to the next level,” he said.

In that sense, the call to action is embodied in “serving my community as an educator, as an administrator, as a community leader, by serving my community as a parent, by serving my community in opportunities like this,” Rivera continued.

“If I wait for a lawmaker to actually do something that’s going to improve my community, I’m going to be waiting for the rest of my life,” he explained, adding that, instead, the mindset of others should be, “I’m waiting for a lawmaker to create the conditions by which I can best serve my community.”

Rivera noted that Gov. Wolf is currently looking to create better conditions to improve access to higher education and the workforce for more of the state’s residents thanks to his recent push to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour, and his intention to invest more in infrastructure throughout the state.

“This isn’t just about creating higher education options. This isn’t just about doing what’s right...Diversifying our higher ed pipeline, whether it’s working toward an industry certificate, two-year degree, or four-year degree and beyond, isn’t just about being a good person. It’s about being a good steward of resources,” he said.

The DOE has also taken steps already to focus on specific ways to diversify the higher education pipeline and strengthen the workforce.

Focusing on early college options, Rivera said, is one way to cut down on cost for many state residents. He noted that embedding college options into high school curriculums can “incentivize dual enrollment.”

“We know that if they can attain college credits while going through their high school experience, it brings down the cost of college significantly,” he said, adding that decreasing debt and the amount of time it takes for a student to complete a degree program is one of the best ways to address the obstacles most likely to derail students attempting to pursue higher education.

Rivera explained that the DOEn is also working on improving the relationship between K-12 counselors and college admissions counselors - something that was previously “nonexistent.” However, thanks to a symposium held in 2018, they were able to bring together those counselors to talk about creating better transitions from high school to college for Pennsylvania students.

The DOE has also looked to incorporate additional elements into teacher certification standards - including cultural competency, understanding trauma-based instruction, a focus on underrepresented communities, and more. A lack of knowledge around those issues can “[keep] teachers from being successful and [work] in some of our most vulnerable communities,” he said.

Additionally, the DOE has worked with other state departments to address issues such as mental health in schools and on college campuses, food insecurity, and access to education for incarcerated individuals.

Part of higher education and workforce readiness is linked to the lack of completion of degree programs, Rivera said, citing the fact that over 1.2 million Pennsylvania residents have more than 20 college credits, but no degree - even though Pennsylvania is also the “biggest exporter of college graduates.”

Rivera urged attendees to “continue to build the coalitions that you’re building,” as well as “continue to take advantage of the proven ideas you have here.”

“We’re going to be your biggest cheerleaders, we’re going to validate those thoughts, those ideas, and those investments, and then we’re going to help you push forward and create opportunities for our kids, create opportunities for our communities, so in the next generation we’re not wasting the resources that we’re trying to build today,” he concluded.

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