Making Public Higher Education More Affordable and Accessible

The success of an educational system is critical for the future of any society because it plays a key role in creating a quality workforce, supporting business and industry, and fostering research and innovation.

“Student success is our No. 1 priority,” says Sharon Minnich, vice chancellor for Administration and Finance at Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

Redesigning for the Future

Fourteen universities comprise the State System and enroll more than 100,000 degree-seeking students and others in career-development programs, making it a vital contributor to Pennsylvania’s economy. Collectively, the universities in the system offer over 2,300 degree and certificate programs in more than 530 academic areas.

Minnich was brought on board early last year to help advance the State System’s redesign efforts. In her previous role serving the Governor’s Office of Administration, she implemented a shared service model uniting human resources (HR) and IT to achieve millions in savings for the state, giving her the technical expertise and people skills necessary for the significant task ahead.

The State System’s mission is to provide affordable high-quality public higher education. At a time when universities are financially challenged, the State System must find creative ways to keep institutions vibrant and centered on student success. By using a system approach, the state can expand opportunities for students, position institutions for growth, and meet regional economic as well as workforce needs.

“The pandemic brought a number of challenges to the forefront, and we need to address them,” Minnich says, explaining that there are many uncertainties about the return to campus. “The crisis changed every aspect of our business.”

Higher education is not typically a rapidly changing industry; the culture is deliberative. Before the pandemic, substantive operational changes could take years to implement, but it soon became clear that it was both necessary and possible to adapt quickly.

“We needed to create new models to help the students. We had to give them greater flexibility to help meet their financial and family needs,” says Minnich, who believes these adaptations reflect the models of the future. “We’re planning for students who may not be able to attend the traditional day-to-day class structures. We must adapt to what students want, and they want to have choices.”

One of the greatest challenges facing Minnich and the State System is maintaining the health and mental wellness of students and staff in a remote world. Maintaining engagement is difficult when people are off campus and juggling daily needs. On top of that, the universities had to quickly find ways to carry on business as usual, such as conducting virtual tours of the campus in order to continue attracting new students.

Passion for Change

As a first-generation college student, Minnich knows the effort it takes to get a good education and the long-term benefits it can offer. As one of the key leaders of the State System’s redesign efforts, she understands better than anyone the need to connect IT, HR, and the business side of any organization. And as someone who has led large-scale transformational SAP implementations, she also knows all the pieces need to fit together.

“What I love about transforming an organization is seeing how everything comes together to take it to a better place,” she says. In her current role, for example, her goal is to make finance more transparent and change the way people look at the budget. Working with a team from diverse areas, the aim is to create new, sustainable processes that provide a collective view of each university’s financial position so that everyone understands the whole picture.

This requires a change in culture, many conversations, and a lot of interaction. It is imperative to create a safe environment where everyone feels they are being heard, issues are addressed collaboratively, and decisions are communicated clearly.

To illustrate the need for changes in processes, Minnich cites a prior state government procure-to-pay example. What used to take up to 45 days now takes eight. “The process was paper-based,” she explains. “It could be that some relevant documents were on somebody’s desk for days. At first people were afraid of automation, but now it’s second nature.”

Many people forced to work in virtual mode during the crisis were quick to adapt and realize the benefits. Because processes were no longer paper based, they quickly realized that they did not need to come into the office.

Minnich sees technology as a business enabler with a role that is twofold. On one hand, it enables data transparency, which in turn enables better decision-making. Now everyone from the Board of Governors to the leaders of the individual organizations have access to a combination of student and financial data. On the other hand, technology fosters efficiency. Money saved on administrative tasks and through strategic decision-making can be spent on student services and academic activities.

Words of Advice

During her career, Minnich has had some “Aha!” moments that helped her put things into perspective. She recalls a day in 2009 when the state Tax Amnesty Project was launched. Every delinquent taxpayer was sent a letter inviting them to apply for the program. But with no soft launch to ease into the program, the team of 45 state tax agents was swamped with more than 300,000 calls on the first day.

The only way to weather that storm was to take things one day at a time. “You focus on fixing the situation, and moving forward,” she advises.

Her other secret to success is not to apportion blame when things veer off track. It is okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them, she says. No one is perfect, and sometimes people make the wrong decisions. “You need to focus on the end goal,” Minnich says.

And finally, in these times of uncertainty – just like any other time – she believes it is best to find what you love to do and to seek opportunities that allow you to grow and learn.


The Path Forward is a series featuring trailblazing women in leadership and their inspiring insights and experiences.


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