Brain Boost: Here’s how Pa. can attract and retain young talent | Opinion

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By Pamela Gunter-Smith

This spring, college students across the country will graduate to the tune of 1 million associate degrees, 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees, 780,000 master’s degrees, and 182,000 doctoral degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These graduates will enter the workforce armed with tremendous knowledge and will continue driving growth collectively for the national economy.

But cities and states now find themselves in fierce competition for college graduates. Which areas locally and regionally are poised to capitalize by attracting these talented future workers?

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania continues to fall further behind. When measuring population growth from 2010 to 2018, Pennsylvania ranks 44th out of all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

While many have chosen to leave Pennsylvania and go elsewhere, there is tremendous opportunity here in our commonwealth. Certainly this factored into my decision to leave New Jersey to become president of York College of Pennsylvania and a major focus of my work at the college has been to share this message of opportunity with others.

I’m certainly not alone. In the past six years, I’ve met with countless individuals who believe likewise. Chief among them is Mark Zeleznock, CEO and co-founder of Dataforma. His web-based business could have put down roots anywhere, but the talent of this region appealed to him. Dataforma became one of the first tenants in York College’s J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship in 2012.

The partnership has yielded tremendous rewards for all parties. Dataforma has more than tripled its revenue and grown by two to three employees annually for the past half-decade. Likewise, York College students have reaped the benefits of increased access to internships and job opportunities, illustrating there is no need to look far and wide when ample career prospects here are ripe for picking.

FULL COVERAGE: The Capital-Star’s Brain Drain Series

This is but one example of the role higher education can and must play to plug the brain drain and stop leaking our most valuable asset: human capital. With a higher education climate that boasts some of the most storied and diverse colleges and universities in the country, there’s no reason that Pennsylvania should be relegated to second-tier status.

But in the centuries that have passed since our nation’s founding, the role of higher education has demanded more of institutions. It’s no longer enough to provide lectures in classrooms. Learning can take place in many forms and in many arenas.

It is our duty as educators to blur the line between campus and community whenever possible. If students remain confined to the halls and dorms where they’re most comfortable, they’ll miss out on developing more meaningful connections for the next chapter of their lives.

This includes career prospects, but also being engaged community members and collectively working as good neighbors. When York College opened the Center for Community Engagement, its natural location was in downtown York, a symbolic and practical gesture that illustrates our missions remain intrinsically linked.

While the financial benefits of a college degree on the lifetime earnings of workers are well-documented, we must also not ignore the impact of student debt levels that graduates frequently bear. Pennsylvania college graduates have an average student debt of $35,759, which is second highest in the country behind only New Hampshire.

According to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors, 80 percent of people ages 22 to 35 with student debt who haven’t bought a house cite student loans as their main reason for not doing so. It stands to reason that many graduates here simply feel they can’t yet afford to put down roots for the long-term, and we’re losing them as a result.

Institutions individually, and legislators collectively, must continually work to keep the costs of public and private education affordable in Pennsylvania.

Grants from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency remain one of the most valuable tools in limiting student debt and we must preserve and expand this valuable resource. Of course, institutions must also make continued investments into financial aid to ensure education remains accessible.

Access and affordability are part of York College’s DNA. The college continues to maintain a price point significantly lower than that of other private institutions, even considering recent tuition resets by some.

We invest four years in helping students gain the tools, knowledge, and experience necessary to ensure they can go anywhere. But just because they can leave, doesn’t mean they should. Now it’s time to invest further in showing them that four years is just the tip of the iceberg, and Pennsylvania can offer a lifetime of growth and opportunity.

Pamela Gunter-Smith is the president of York College of Pennsylvania. She writes from York, Pa.

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