Rethinking higher education

Over the past decade, Madison Avenue has been enamored with the so-called millennial generation, trying to understand its ever-changing social habits and interests. In some respect, I think the focus on millennials is old news as the next generation — dubbed Generation Z, or occasionally “centennials” — is coming of age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, Generation Z made up more than 25 percent of the country’s population, making them a larger cohort than millennials.

Many centennial kids across Pennsylvania, who are now focused upon emojis, school cafeteria food and upgrading their iPhone, will soon be part of an important family discussion about what they’ll do after high school.

A key partner in this discussion must be a modern, innovative system of higher education. We must begin now to transform Pennsylvania’s postsecondary experience into a forward-looking, technologically advanced and consumer driven system that encourages rigorous inquiry, prepares people for real-time job opportunities and serves as a means of lifelong learning.

To do so requires us to shake off the cobwebs of last century thinking and embrace new ideas, innovative higher education delivery models and a new role for our state government.

As chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education in 2012, I had the opportunity to work with many thoughtful and innovative academics, business people and civic leaders to develop a roadmap for higher ed in the 21st century. Some of the ideas we supported were:

1. A passport for lifelong learning with our higher education institutions that takes advantage of next generation “apps” and opportunities to continually re-engage citizens who will need to refresh and update their skill sets for an ever changing technology-driven world.

2. A modern performance-based system for the approximately $1.7 billion of the total public outlay of funds that support Pennsylvania’s higher education system.

3. Access to the billions of dollars available through PHEAA that are currently not available to our college students.

4. A 21st century innovation agenda for our commonwealth to serve as a magnet for entrepreneurs from around the globe — developed by the leaders of our Tier I research universities.

5. Repositioning our public state colleges and universities to be the “go-to source” for continuing education for lifelong learning for future millennials, centennials and beyond.

There is not a moment to lose. We must act now to develop a long-term strategy for higher education to ensure educational options for students align with workforce needs and the ever changing and future demands of Pennsylvania’s economy.

Rob Wonderling is president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Talent Action Team.