The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), the beleaguered network of 14 public campuses, will consider integrating three pairs of its colleges as it looks for ways to cut costs and mitigate persistent enrollment declines while also widening its academic offerings.

PASSHE‘s troubles extend a decade back. Its student population has continued to shrink, in part because of the state’s flattening population. The legislature has also failed to invest meaningfully in the system, leading system officials to boost tuition to keep step with rising costs. 

Historically, PASSHE needed state lawmakers’ blessing to make more drastic moves, such as consolidating campuses. However, legislation signed by Gov. Tom Wolf this month allows the governing board, and vaunted system Chancellor Daniel Greenstein, to expand or merge colleges without their approval. 

Policy experts predict this new autonomy will enable the system to function more nimbly, helping it remedy its existing problems and better prepare for the inevitable financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. 

But the integration proposal would likely cost the system jobs. And whether it will pass muster with state legislators and PASSHE’s powerful union remains unclear.

“We are going to be consultative and this is meant to be as transparent as possible,” system spokesperson David Pidgeon said.

PASSHE’s troubles

PASSHE’s enrollment slid about 20% in the last 10 years. A hypercompetitive environment among other prominent Pennsylvania public and private colleges, as well as shifting state demographics, have cut deep into the system’s enrollment, leaving some of its institutions struggling to survive. 

At the same time, no system or state leader has been willing to entertain campus closures. 

Cheyney University, the oldest historically Black institution in the U.S., whose enrollment dwindled by more than half in the last decade, has had the support of prominent state officials, and the system, even when it was fighting to keep its accreditation and owed PASSHE more than $40 million. The majority of that debt was forgiven.

The new law explicitly denies system heads the ability to shut down a campus. “For us, it’s terrible public policy,” Pidgeon said.

Instead, Greenstein has recommended PASSHE explore integrating three sets of universities: California and Clarion, Edinboro and Slippery Rock, and Lock Haven and Mansfield. At its virtual meeting Thursday, the system’s board of governors backed his plan unanimously, setting off a review of the financial impact of potentially combining campuses’ operations. A proposal will eventually be presented to the public and lawmakers. 

The earliest schools could be integrated would be the fall of 2022, Pidgeon said, noting that each pairing would open the system to new academic opportunities in the institutions’ respective areas of focus.

Lock Haven and Mansfield, located in northern Pennsylvania, have high demand for nondegree and stackable credentials, he said. 

California and Clarion, which Pidgeon said have a “proven track record” of robust online classes, could jointly stand up deeper programming. Virtual options are likely key for the system as online giant Southern New Hampshire University partners with the state’s community colleges to attract students who may have otherwise transferred to PASSHE. 

Meanwhile, Edinboro and Slippery Rock have vied for students in northwestern Pennsylvania — even with each other. Unifying some of their operations could alleviate that competitive stress, Pidgeon said.

The system will research how the universities would function with one leadership team as well as a unified body of faculty and staff. A common budget, one array of academic programs and a singular enrollment management strategy are also under consideration. 

PASSHE’s recent research on financial sustainability unearthed a startling fact, Pidgeon said. To remain viable, the campuses would need to draw severely on their reserve funding and would not be able to create new programs, further deepening their enrollment rut. 

If its schools remained entirely independent, four campuses likely would have had reserves of $10 million or less, and five would have had $20 million or less, Pidgeon said. 

“They begin to lose their market share, and lose students and lose revenue coming in,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Potential barriers

Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said he wouldn’t be surprised if discussions of linking the six universities had been in the works for some time, with the legislation created to allow them to see it through, he said. 

System officials have carefully avoided calling the arrangement a merger, which for the public can imply one institution would vanish while the other would absorb its more lucrative pieces, McClure said. 

“It conjures up notions of an organization being aggressively taken over, or a vision of a hollowed out industrial building that’s been forgotten,” McClure said. “These apocalyptic scenarios aren’t impossible to imagine in this type of situation, but they can also undermine good intentions and reform that’s necessary.”

Though consolidations have succeeded in other parts of the country, they have sometimes seen resistance by adamant defenders of straggling colleges who are intent on preserving an institution’s brand. 

What may appear trivial on paper — a change as simple as a new name for a college — could face major pushback. 

“The intent is to honor institutional identity,” Pidgeon said of potential renamings, though he added that data “will ultimately drive that decision.”

For now, the system’s biggest hurdle will be appealing to the state’s faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said Jake Haulk, president emeritus and senior adviser at the Allegheny Institute, a regional think tank. 

The system is deeply unionized, and the group used its influence to shape the new legislation, Haulk said. Lawmakers, after working with the union, removed a provision that would have allowed the system to shutter campuses, and they exempted schools with more than 10,000 students — West Chester University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. 

But integrations would undoubtedly cause job losses across the system as it reels back academic offerings, Haulk said. The union did not respond to Education Dive’s request for comment on Friday.

“The bottom line: this isn’t going anywhere without the union,” he said. “Their dissent will continue.”

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