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Pennsylvania Debates Merging 6 State Universities into 2

Faced with declining enrollment and other financial pressures, Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education will vote this week on a plan to consolidate several campuses and offer hybrid or remote classes.

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State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein delivers his state of the system address, January 15, 2020. Greenstein is the head of a system of 14 state-owned colleges and universities. Dan Gleiter |
(TNS) — Leaders of Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities are now just days away from making the most transformative decision in its 38-year history.

This week, the governing board of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education will decide on a plan to combine six universities into two institutions.

All six campuses would remain open but they would operate under new names. On Wednesday, the board will vote on a plan to fold Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities into one institution and California, Clarion and Edinboro universities into another.

With the state system facing serious financial pressures and declining enrollment, top system leaders say the plan is essential to ensure the survival of some of the schools. Under the consolidation plan, course offerings on one campus would be accessible to students on the other two campuses, albeit likely in a hybrid or remote fashion.

Twelve of 18 board members – three of whom are students, with two board vacancies – must approve the plan for it to be implemented. In April, the board voted 17-2 to continue exploring the consolidations.

Gov. Tom Wolf supports the plan. It has been updated to incorporate some of the suggestions made during the pubic comment period since the April meeting.

“The governor supports PASSHE’s revised integration plans,” said his spokeswoman Elizabeth Rementer in a statement. “Building on PASSHE’s System Redesign initiative, these plans offer an opportunity to continue transforming public higher education in Pennsylvania to meet the evolving needs of students, while making higher education more affordable, accessible, and equitable.”

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders reached Friday didn’t exactly give it an enthusiastic thumbs up or thumbs down. Instead, some voiced confidence in the system’s board of governors to make the right decision.

Union leaders representing the faculty, coaches, and other staff voice hesitancy – if not outright opposition – about moving forward, without more information about its impact on students and employees.

“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions,” said Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. “The best for Pennsylvania public higher education is to adequately fund it. … I don’t know this plan is the best plan and it’s kind of disappointing there’s still so many questions about it.”

Lock Haven City Council oppose the plan. The Clinton County commissioners have concerns about it. Bloomsburg University trustees’ Chairwoman Judge Mary Jane Bowes said trustees are concerned about the potential impact the consolidation with financially struggling Lock Haven and Mansfield could have on Bloomsburg’s fiscal health. Sen. Jim Brewster, D- Allegheny County, sent a letter to the chancellor urging a two-year pause.

West Chester University student Monica Zheng, a vocal opponent to the consolidations, said, “There’s no part of the plan that seems enticing to me as a student if I were to go to one of these schools.”

Rep. Tim Briggs, D- Montgomery County, a system board member, was one of the two dissenting votes at the April meeting. He said several of his concerns about the preliminary plan have been addressed. Still, he said he remains uneasy about the dearth of student input.

He said he would favor postponing a decision for 60 days to allow time for students to comment on the plan, but he sounded doubtful enough board members would go along with that.

‘A critical point’

System Chancellor Dan Greenstein describes the plan as what public higher education in the 21st Century ought to look like. The state system oversees 14 universities, and most are seeing falling enrollment and shakier finances in recent years.

“Uncertainty of the future is painful. It’s real,” he said in a Thursday interview with PennLive along with Bashar Hanna, president of Bloomsburg and Lock Haven universities. “But the uncertainty of an integration I would take that any day over the certainty of not addressing our problems.”

The system’s enrollment has fallen 22 percent since 2010 – dropping from 119,513 to last year’s 93,708. The system is facing financial challenges that put some of the smaller campuses on an unsustainable path, without leaning on sister institutions to keep them afloat.

Greenstein and others say the only alternative to the university consolidations is for the state to commit $650 million to $700 million annually to the system. Currently, the system receives $477.5 million in state aid, a sum that covers about 29 percent of its operating budget. When the system was formed in 1983, state aid covered about 65 percent of its operating budget.

State funding to the system has steadily declined over the years forcing universities to cut programs, cut staff, dig deeply into reserves. The system has regularly raised tuition to levels that are no longer affordable to students from families with incomes in the $48,000 to $75,000 range – the ones it was designed to serve. The in-state undergraduate tuition for the upcoming academic year is $7,716, which has been held steady for three consecutive years out of affordability concerns.

“We did not get here overnight,” Greenstein told the board last month. “This is not a surprise. This is what happens through inaction. We are at a critical point in time. My view, and I’ve been very clear about it, inaction at this stage is highly, highly, highly problematic.”

This year, the General Assembly and Wolf approved the first installment of $50 million of a $200 million three-year commitment to the system.

In a statement, Wolf’s spokeswoman said the governor was proud to have worked with the system and its labor unions to secure that funding to transform and rebuild the system into a higher education leader.

“This investment helps ensure this challenging but critical transition is humane for faculty and staff; supports student success; advances diversity, equity, and inclusion; and positions the State System to attract and retain students, to grow enrollments, and reinvest in campus communities,” Rementer, Wolf’s spokeswoman, said.

If the plans win the system board’s approval, she said it will “initiate the start of a long implementation process that will require the ongoing partnership and engagement of PASSHE and the Board of Governors with commonwealth leaders, students, faculty, staff, and impacted communities to gather more feedback and guidance as new issues or challenges arise.

“The governor will continue to be a strong advocate for PASSHE and long-term, sustained investments in the State System to ensure that PASSHE can continue to provide a Pennsylvanians with a world-class, affordable education and a pathway to the middle class for decades to come,” Rementer said.

What’s the plan?

The proposal calls for admitting students into the consolidated universities starting next fall. It would have each trio of schools operating under a single president, a common budget and a unified array of academic programs taught by a combined faculty. Students applying to a consolidated university could still choose the campus they want to attend.

Its enrollment growth strategy for the Bloomsburg/ Lock Haven/ Mansfield group includes, among other ideas, offering an array of non-degree programs to serve nontraditional students to meet workforce needs of that region.

The Clarion- California- Edinboro integration is looking to increase enrollment, in part, through offering fully online undergraduate degree and degree completion programs, as well as some graduate programs.

A lot of details have yet to be finalized. Some seem as simple as coming up with names for each of the umbrella universities.

Others are more critical. Will the consolidated schools be accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education? Will the NCAA allow each of the six campuses to retain its athletic programs?

Greenstein said many details hinge on the plan receiving a green light from the board of governors to move forward with the consolidations. If it is a go, much work remains until the integration of the curriculum of the universities is completed by fall 2024.

“People think this is the end and it is actually not the end,” Greenstein said. “It’s the beginning …. This is a long journey.”

Developing the plan

System officials have crafted the 200-plus page consolidation plans over the course of the past 12 months. The General Assembly has given the system the authority to make such radical changes.

More than 1,000 people participated in the development of the plans. Hundreds of people have opined and helped reshape it through their comments. Four online public hearings were held last month, along with several the faculty union held.

Many comments came from faculty and staff calling on the board to oppose the plan, or at least delay it.

Greenstein said the outcry led to the most significant change made to the plan: delaying the full integration of curriculum across the consolidated universities to the fall of 2024 instead of next fall, as originally proposed.

Critics of the plan have voiced concerns about job cuts. A report by three University of Massachusetts-Amherst professors projected a four-year loss of 871 positions by 2023.

But system officials say that figure includes some of the job cuts associated with the system’s separate initiative to bring its employee-student ratio back to 2010-11 levels, which is separate from the university consolidations and will continue regardless of whether the mergers happen.

Greenstein said system officials have bent over backwards to avoid layoffs by downsizing through attrition and retirement incentive programs. They have been mostly successful in achieving their goals, although the faculty union president said some departures are a result of faculty retiring early to salvage the jobs of junior professors or for morale reasons.

The chancellor said consolidations present an opportunity to add staff, since growing enrollment is an objective.

The plan includes an economic impact study on the communities of the universities slated for consolidation. It projects both consolidations would lead to greater economic growth than if the universities remain standalone institutions. That challenges some concerns raised by the public about the plan having a negative effect on businesses in the host communities.

The system projects the consolidated universities will solidly remain in the black going forward and be able to build up their reserves. The projections are based on assumptions of annual increases of 1-percent enrollment growth and 1-percent tuition increases.

According to the results of the most recent student survey about tolerance for online learning, an average of 72 percent of respondents from Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield said they’d be willing to take at least a quarter of their classes online. Similar data for California, Clarion and Edinboro was not available at last check Friday afternoon.

In an earlier survey, nine in 10 prospective and current students expressed a willingness to take courses online if it could keep down the cost of their education and allow them to graduate sooner. Parents were even more supportive of their students taking online courses if it meant graduating in four years.

Currently, Hanna said it takes students, on average, 5 to 5.5 years to complete their four-year degree at a system university.

“It’s really about making sure we minimize the cost to degree,” Hanna said. “The other part that I think is really exciting about all this is looking at how we partner with the school districts that feed us our students and how can we capitalize on dual enrollment students who are capable of doing college level work still in high school.”

Those efforts will bode well for students particularly those in rural counties of Pennsylvania, where universities slated for consolidations are located. Hanna said for families in those counties, the system’s tuition and room and board amount to about 60 percent of their household income.

Knowing students who attend state universities travel less than 75 miles from home makes it critical to avoid creating higher education deserts by having any of its universities close, Hanna added.

“If we don’t integrate, what we will see as chancellor has said numerous times, if we don’t get significant numbers of millions of dollars infusion from the commonwealth, our smaller institutions will ultimately contract and be forced to close. They certainly wouldn’t remain comprehensive institutions,” he said.

“Integration gives us a chance at an opportunity to keep them open and create a situation where they become stable.”

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