Pennsylvania system board votes to merge 6 institutions into 2

The governing board of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted unanimously Wednesday to merge six of its universities into two new institutions, despite widespread acrimony among faculty, staff and students who argued the plan was hurried and ill-advised. PASSHE leaders presented the consolidation as crucial to preserving the system after a decade of enrollment declines and financial woes. 

Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the northeast will combine and emphasize stackable credentials and in-demand fields in the state, while California, Clarion and Edinboro in the west will specialize in online education, bringing the number of system institutions from 14 to 10.

The mergers are a result of a campaign fronted by the system’s chancellor Dan Greenstein, who portrayed them as the system’s sole path to financial salvation. They’re also part of a larger system redesign. During a virtual meeting with the governing board Wednesday, Greenstein said PASSHE was bleeding cash, and would lose $40 to $50 million a year if it did not take action.

Doing otherwise “increases our reputational risk,” Greenstein said. 

The vote comes as other states like Vermont and New Hampshire advance or weigh merger plans — and years after Georgia started combining many of its public institutions. But such changes have long been resisted in the Pennsylvania system, making Wednesday’s approval noteworthy.

What’s in a merger?

The two new institutions will each have their own academic programs, president, leadership team, faculty and enrollment strategy. The mergers attempt to reduce the cost of attendance by 25%. The system has said this wouldn’t necessarily be achieved by lowering tuition, but rather as a product of consolidation, such as expanding programming that would shorten how long it takes to earn a degree. 

Students would first start classes at the combined institutions in fall 2022. The system said in a statement it expects to release organizational charts for the new entities in the coming months. The joined universities will maintain a residential experience, according to the statement. Each campus will keep its name, while the integrated institutions will also get a new name, a PASSHE president told a local TV station.

Officials adjusted the merger blueprints from April when the board initially advanced them, based on public feedback. They extended the time for blending the curricula at the two new institutions from one year to three years. And they pledged that none of the campuses marked for integration would close. 

But key elements of the plan are still being worked out. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the system’s accreditor, has not yet said the institutions comply with its standards. One university in each consolidated trio would be designated the main campus for accreditation, the plan states, stressing the others would “operate as full and co-equal campuses in all other respects.” 

The system has also sought to preserve athletics on all six campuses, which the NCAA has yet to authorize. 

Greenstein said during the meeting that Middle States and the NCAA were awaiting the PASSHE board’s vote before deciding. 

Bad reactions

Opponents of the mergers seized on these lacking approvals as proof the system plans were a rush job. Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said during the meeting that faculty and student fears were exacerbated without the accreditor’s and the NCAA’s assurances. 

Holiday Adair, a psychology professor at California University of Pennsylvania, said during the meeting’s public comment period that moving the consolidations forward would ignore the dissent of PASSHE faculty, students and others. Adair tearfully called for a “no” vote. 

Martin promised in a statement following the board’s approval to amplify student voices and to advocate for course corrections as needed. 

“We hoped improvements could be made that did not involve such fundamental changes to our universities,” she said in the statement. 

Public response to the mergers was already overwhelmingly negative during online hearings the system held last month. 

Hundreds of written statements expressing concern also poured in. The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, which advocates for the state’s two-year schools, noted in a letter to PASSHE that its plan for the western schools targeted community college students. But the commission was not consulted about a proposed partnership, it wrote.

The system may “inaccurately estimate” the potential to recruit community college students without “full knowledge” of the enrollment decline and project trends among two-year schools, the commission wrote. 

By the system’s own analysis, more than 40% of written comments to the system opposed the plans and 15% wanted the board to postpone a vote on consolidations, Greenstein noted during the meeting.

A troubled system

Even a delayed vote would jeopardize an improving relationship with the legislature, Greenstein said. He and several board members implied that lawmakers would be more inclined to reward the system later if they observed efforts to right its finances now. While some state officials have backed the mergers, including Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, more than 40 Democratic lawmakers asked the system to delay them at least a year, one board member said during the meeting.

A potential alliance with legislators could behoove a system that faces strong headwinds

PASSHE’s enrollment has plummeted by about 20% in the last decade, to more than 93,000 students. Observers attribute this in part to the system becoming less affordable for the low-income students it was designed to serve because it hiked tuition in response to state funding cuts. 

State money dropped dramatically during the tenure of former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, who assumed office in 2011. The system recorded an 18% decrease in state appropriations from 2010-11 to the next fiscal year, and funding has been slow to recover. Challenging demographic trends in the Keystone State also compound a saturated higher education market, in which PASSHE competes for attention with big-name public institutions such as Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pittsburgh.

The effects of these obstacles are evident among PASSHE universities. The system wants each institution to maintain a three-year rolling average operating margin of at least 2% to 4%, which is based on guidelines from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

But in the previous academic year, 11 of 14 universities had operating margins below 2%, up from five institutions in 2015-16.

PASSHE officials believe their redesign efforts mark a turning point. The state budget earmarks $200 million for PASSHE over three years to “reinvigorate” its universities, Wolf’s office said in a statement.

The approved merger plan is “an unprecedented step in reestablishing our relationship with the people of Pennsylvania through the General Assembly,” Greenstein said. “I would like to think it is bearing fruit.”

Several presidents of PASSHE campuses, even some outside the merged institutions, said during the meeting they supported the measure. While governing board members were united in their vote, some said they know the plan has flaws but were persuaded inaction would be worse.

“It’s a tough situation, I get that,” said Samuel Smith, a board member. “But that’s the cost of change.”

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