by J.D. Davidson
What some are calling one of the most significant pieces of higher education reform in years in Ohio is also drawing opposition from state colleges and universities.
The Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee held its fourth hearing Wednesday on Senate Bill 135, which bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, said was a bold plan to enhance higher education and workforce development.
Cirino’s plan addresses student debt, allows more low-cost higher education options that include the state’s community colleges and requires high schools to inform students of career options that require associate degrees or certificates, rather than only four-year degree options.
“Senate Bill 135 is not a global solution. Senate Bill 135 is not a silver bullet in addressing the student loan and workforce issues in our state,” Cirino said at the bill’s first hearing in April. “It is a step in creating a more effective, more accountable and more affordable post secondary education system for the state of Ohio.”
If passed, the bill requires four-year institutions to partner with two-year colleges and gives students the option of finishing their first two years at a community college at the community college price while actually being enrolled at a four-year school.
It also creates a second chance voucher program to help students to have earned some college credit but have not received a degree or workforce credential, and it allows four-year nursing bachelor programs at community and technical colleges.
Greg Lawson, research fellow at The Buckeye Institute, testified Wednesday the bill would “help thousands of Ohioans obtain the skills and education they need at prices they can afford.”
Lawson also urged lawmakers to enact additional reforms to expand access to Ohio College Opportunity Grants, eliminate the Pell-first requirement and open the OCOG program to students earning job training requirements.
Lawson said the legislation “may well be the most significant higher education reform legislation in recent memory.”
Four-year college and university representatives, however, argued implementing four-year programs at community colleges would create substantial new costs and blurs the line between two-year and four-year schools.
“Offering four-year degrees at college community college would run counter to the 30-plus years of work and resources that the state of Ohio and public institutions have applied to transfer policy in process,” Ohio University Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Sayrs testified. “The implementation of four-year programs at community colleges would include a substantial investment of administrative and instructional overhead and would create inefficiencies and unnecessary duplicity of degree offerings with four-year institutions.”
Representatives from Miami University, Kent State, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Toledo also raised concerns.
Lawson, though, believes the four-year institutions should welcome the opportunities to help more students.
“Ohio has a robust higher education system. But it still has gaps for many non-traditional working students including, according to the Ohio Department of Education, more than 1 million Ohioans that have some college but no degree or workforce certification,” Lawson said. “Community colleges play a role in filling these gaps, and Senate Bill 135 innovatively expands their ability to do so. Four-year universities obviously are concerned about losing market share, but they should not be fearful of greater competition. Rather, they should view it as an opportunity to continue innovating to fill those gaps themselves.”
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An Ohio native, J.D. Davidson is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience in newspapers in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. He has served as a reporter, editor, managing editor and publisher. He is regional editor for The Center Square.