Plans for merging Pennsylvania public universities would allow them to keep their brands

Dive Brief:

  • Six universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education that officials intend to combine by fall 2022 would retain their names and identities after the move, according to the latest version of the proposal, although they’d be accredited as two distinct entities.

  • PASSHE officials are also seeking to keep athletics programs functioning at the six universities, pending NCAA approval, as a way to further preserve their brands. 

  • The system has endured major enrollment losses in the last decade or so, and the health crisis has only aggravated its financial predicament.

Dive Insight:

Details on the PASSHE mergers have been slow to emerge over the last seven months, doing little to soothe faculty concerns over the process, especially in light of the pandemic forcing the system to look to layoffs.

System officials last summer proposed combining Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the northern and eastern parts of the state and California, Clarion and Edinboro universities in the west. The former trio would concentrate on stackable and nondegree credentials while the latter would specialize in online education. The two new entities would each have a single slate of academic programs and a leadership team. 

The consolidations mean to correct the systems’ precarious financial position and enrollment, which dropped 20% or so in the last decade. The system wants to reduce students’ cost of attendance by 25%.

Yet “chronic disinvestment” by the state will make that challenging, Andrew Koricich, a higher education professor at Appalachian State University who has studied the PASSHE system, wrote in an email.

Tuition at Pennsylvania’s public universities has long been among the highest in the country, and not just because each PASSHE school has its own set of leaders, which would add overhead cost, Koricich wrote, adding he’s “not convinced” the called-for student savings could happen without more state money.

“The same amount of money would end up being spent, just with funds reallocated from administration to academic support services (for example), but quality and outcomes could potentially improve,” Koricich wrote. 

Mergers in other states have also proven unpopular, in part because campuses are economic anchors in their communities, and alumni and lawmakers don’t wish to see them gutted.

PASSHE leaders have repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining the six schools’ identities. They were not likely to get community buy-in without doing so, Koricich wrote.

During a virtual governing board meeting Thursday, PASSHE officials touched on the system’s flagging enrollment and dim growth projections.

Bashar Hanna, who is overseeing the integrations of the northeastern triad, said during the meeting that those three universities can no longer rely on traditional college-age students to fill their seats. Instead, he said, they need to look to “corporate partners” and assess their needs and develop training programs that would match them. Hanna is also the president of Bloomsburg and the interim president of Lock Haven

The new entity would target students with some college credit but no degree and recent high school graduates who aren’t looking for a four-year degree, Hanna said.

Officials haven’t said whether the plan would result in staff cuts.

System spokesperson David Pidgeon wrote in an email Friday that it is “much too early” to speculate on potential impacts to employment. A representative from the system’s faculty union did not respond to an email requesting comment Friday.

Final plans for the integrations are slated to be submitted for public comment in April

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