The way an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sees it, Pennsylvania is neither an overall leader nor a laggard in public higher education, but earns every grade in the book, from A through F, depending on the category.
In a study released last week by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, which is a nonprofit affiliate of the chamber, Pennsylvania received an A for openness to new providers, as measured by the lack of roadblocks for out-of-state online providers to offer classes to Pennsylvania students.
It received an F for transparency and accountability for both four-year and two-year institutions.
While its score for consumer information and public accountability resources was average, its grade for transparency and accountability was brought down because the group found the state "does not measure student learning outcomes or track graduate performance in the labor market."
The study included the four state-related universities, the state System of Higher Education and community colleges serving nearly 335,000 students.
Cheryl Oldham, institute vice president, said that with an increasing focus on educating the workforce to a higher level than ever before, one of the priorities of the institute is engaging the business community in postsecondary education issues.
"We want to see more students completing. We want to see a much higher level of transparency and consumer education, when it comes to higher education and data, around outcomes," she said.
One of Pennsylvania's C grades was in efficiency and cost-effectiveness for four-year and two-year institutions.
This grade comes after Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, for the highest tuition and fees among public four-year schools by the U.S. Department of Education.
Like any grade or ranking, the result depends on what is measured.
The institute's study did not look directly at tuition, but instead considered the cost per completion and the local and state funding per completion. In this study, if the cost of completion were the same at two schools, the one with the lower local and state funding would get the higher grade.
The report puts it this way: "If a state produces a large number of degrees or certificates with a relatively low level of state investment, taxpayers are likely to see that as a good deal. States that invest much more to produce a similar number of credentials may not be as attractive from the taxpayer perspective."
Andrew Kelly, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute who was part of the research team, said: "We don't think this is about slashing budgets indiscriminately. We think it's about making sure the public dollars are well spent and effectively leading to success."
In the case of Pennsylvania's four-year schools, the cost of completion of $73,306 was above the national median of $68,140, but its state and local contribution per completion was estimated at $27,923, below the national median of $41,138. That put Pennsylvania as the seventh-lowest state and local contribution per completion.
Pennsylvania received a D for innovation in online learning, a category which did not consider how many students take online courses. The state was downgraded for not having a goal of making online learning a priority and a lack of clarity on the transferability of online credits on a State System portal for online offerings.
Mr. Kelly said, "Online learning is an important innovation in that it opens up the potential to serve more students, to lower costs and to serve students in particular who are currently underserved by bricks and mortar [schools]."
Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said: "All higher education institutions in the commonwealth are working hard to keep pace with the needs of today's students. There are universities that have experienced significant growth in online education, and Pennsylvania's higher education community is continuing to work toward meeting the needs of the 21st-century student."
The state's B grade for student access and success is in part because the state ranked in the top third of states on both completion and retention rates.
The report found that Pennsylvania did better at college completion than would be expected, given the proportion of students receiving Pell grants, federal aid for low-income students.
About 26 percent of the state's students receive Pell grants, with 62.4 percent completing within six years, which is above the national median of 54.5 percent for Pell recipients.
• The state and its postsecondary institutions received marks ranging from A to F. For the full report card, go to B-2.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955. First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 AM