COLUMBUS — The new chancellor at the Ohio Department of Higher Education said college affordability and workforce training will remain a focus as the DeWine administration prepares to unveil its budget proposal.
Expect increased need-based financial aid, Chancellor Randy Gardner said, citing the Ohio College Opportunity Grant program, which provides money to state residents demonstrating the most need.
“I’m confident there will be a solid increase in support for OCOG and for need-based financial aid,” Gardner said in a recent interview with The Dispatch. “That’s an area of our state budget that hasn’t been Ohio’s strongest point … We will make gains in that area.”
Gardner takes the helm of the department after 33 years in the legislature, where he was the Senate majority leader in his final term. He also was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee's Higher Education Subcommittee for his last eight years there; while in the House, he had held its similar post.
Gardner, a Republican from Bowling Green, felt he was able to continue constituent service, he said, when he was hearing from students, parents, faculty members and others during Wright State University's 20-day faculty strike that began just eight days after Gardner was sworn in this year.
Alongside Gardner is former state Rep. Mike Duffey, a Worthington Republican who now is the senior vice chancellor in the higher education department.
Gardner wouldn’t share specifics of what will be included in his agency’s budget request, but he said that college costs will be a theme.
“Affordability will continue to matter with this governor,” he said.
Bruce Johnson, president of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, said public universities are hoping for increased state investment in higher education, noting that Ohio's funding per full-time student remains below the national average by more than $1,500.
“We think that high-quality education is expensive to deliver, and it’s been two years with no additional tuition and no additional state support,” Johnson said. “We’re hopeful that the governor will make investments in higher education, including adult retraining and need-based financial aid.”
Although a report last fall from the Joint Committee on Ohio College Affordability called for removing a state-imposed freeze on tuition at public universities and replacing it with caps on increases, Gardner said no decision has been made regarding freezes or caps.
The chancellor also said that workforce development and training will be a priority for the new administration.
DeWine, in his State of the State speech last week, spoke of embarking on “the most aggressive workforce-development and worker-retraining effort in Ohio history,” promising to invest in career-technical centers and two-year community colleges and pledging the creation of at least 10,000 industry certificates.
The announcement energized the state’s community colleges, said Jack Hershey, president and CEO of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. The number of students earning certificates has increased since the state changed its higher-education funding model based on completion, he said.
“The proposal is certainly bold, but it’s a charge we have been ramping up to tackle," Hershey said in an email. “We understand that we are ground zero in the governor’s call for the most-aggressive workforce-development effort our state has ever seen. We won’t let him down.”
Ohio has a goal of 65 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 having a higher-education degree, certificate or other post-secondary workforce credential of value by 2025. But unless the state zeros in on retraining and “upskilling” adult workers, it won’t meet that goal, Gardner said.
“It’s not possible to meet the 65 percent attainment goal without engaging adult Ohioans — those already in the workforce — to get retraining, and other adults who would like to be in the workforce and aren’t able to at this time,” Gardner said.
That could mean more adults pursuing apprenticeship programs, associate degrees, credentials or certificates rather than — or in addition to — traditional bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees, Gardner said.
“I think we need, more than ever, an all-of-the-above approach when it comes to higher education,” he said.
C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, said Gardner "is supportive of all sectors and all approaches of higher education, and he is focused on improving educational attainment. There is nothing more that we as independent colleges could hope.”
“We absolutely agree that the state needs to hit on all cylinders in order to get to the attainment goal,” said Johnson. "Otherwise, we’re going to have dramatic shortages in health care, finance and business, just generally, business management.”