PASSHE OKs merger plan for six state colleges. What would change
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s board of governors on Wednesday approved a preliminary plan to consolidate six universities, opening a 60-day public comment period on the unprecedented move.
PASSHE’s plan would merge California University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro University and Clarion University in western Pennsylvania, and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in northeast Pennsylvania beginning July 1, 2022.
Besides the six schools considered for mergers, PASSHE universities include Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.
While universities would share a new name for each three-school group, they would also maintain their current identities and campuses, as well as their athletic programs.
However, PASSHE is still awaiting approval from the NCAA for schools to retain their own sports programs under the merger.
“Not everyone will be pleased about everything. We know that,” said Cynthia Shapira, the board’s chairwoman, during an online meeting. “Our goal is to get as close to that as possible with this redesign.”
Shapira stressed that the vote Wednesday was not a final approval, but simply moved the process forward and opened up the window for the public to respond. “Public input is critically important to this process,” she said.
A final vote by the board would come at its July meeting.
In the meantime, the public can go PASSHE.edu to submit comments on the northeast or west plans.
Also, there are two online public hearings planned, one on June 9 from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. and another on June 10 at the same time. A Zoom link will be provided at a later date.
Enrollment down, costs up
PASSHE has said the merger plan is needed to counter continuing enrollment declines and rising costs, a situation its report said “has significantly reduced State System universities’ affordability advantage in PA.”
Since 2010, enrollment at PASSHE’s 14 schools has declined by 21%, and that figure would be 27% if West Chester University’s enrollment increases were not included.
State schools are also losing students from Pennsylvania with in-state enrollment down 18% since 2012.
The board recently froze tuition at $7,716 for a third straight year. Some schools are already facing layoffs because of budget concerns.
PASSHE’s merger plans note that state funding for the system has fallen by 31%, or $210 million, since 2001. Pennsylvania now ranks 48th among states in education appropriations per student, the report said.
PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein said continuing to operate at current enrollment forecasts without making changes would fuel a “vicious cycle” of program cuts that would only spur more enrollment drops.
“We are losing our affordability advantage,” Greenstein said. “Pennsylvania is losing that pathway to opportunities.”
What opponents say
The plan did face opposition on Wednesday, including from Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Mary Jane Bowes, the chairwoman of Bloomsburg University’s council of trustees.
Bowes said the trustees have “serious financial concerns” about the merger plan, insisting that Bloomsburg is stable financially while Lock Haven has failed to meet sustainability goals, Manfield has not balanced its budget and both have “significant and deferred maintenance balances” totaling $65 million.
To meet the debt service under consolidation, Bowes said the state needs to provide $100 million over the next five years “for the chance to have the integration succeed and grow.”
Lock Haven University student Kyle Schlect also expressed his displeasure with the plan, saying that students and local officials oppose the mergers.
“As students, it is very disheartening to see that our voices are not being heard,” he said.
Edinboro faculty member Sam Claster said he grew up in Lock Haven in Clinton County and worries that the consolidations will hurt communities that rely on the university-based economies.
“These local economies can simply not sustain this level of damage,” Claster said.
J.D. Prose is a reporter with the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.