Inside the Numbers of One State’s Plan to Consolidate Its Public System of Higher Ed

About a year ago, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or Passhe, took the first step toward merging six of the 14 universities in a system that has weathered enrollment declines and financial pressures for a decade.

And as early as next month, the system’s Board of Governors could take a final vote on plans to make those six universities into two. California, Clarion, and Edinboro Universities would become one institution in western Pennsylvania. Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield Universities would become one institution in the state’s northeast.

All the campuses would remain open, but with a new name for each group of three institutions.

Mergers have been both common and controversial in recent years for public-college systems with declining enrollments and faltering finances. In Pennsylvania the proposals have elicited an abundance of comments from the public. And there’s a lot for the public to digest. The “West” plan is 237 pages. The “Northeast” plan is 199 pages.

If the mergers are approved next month, as scheduled, they would take effect for the 2022-23 academic year.

Here’s a by-the-numbers look at the rationales and resources involved in the plans:

The decline in enrollment at the state system’s universities since the fall of 2010.

The drop in attendance at Passhe universities followed a decade of growth, with peak enrollment at 119,513 students in the fall of 2010. In the fall of 2020, enrollment was at 93,704, a drop of 21.6 percent. The overall decline was even steeper — more than 27 percent — without West Chester University, the system’s largest and fastest-growing institution. Its student body, at 17,719, has risen 22 percent since 2010.

The number of students enrolled in the fall of 2020 at the six institutions slated for merger.

Bloomsburg University has the largest student body of the six, at about 8,400. The smallest: Mansfield University, with 1,792 — roughly half its number of students in the fall of 2010. Nearly 90 percent of the students at the six institutions are Pennsylvania residents. Left out of the merger plans are Cheyney (the system’s sole historically Black university), East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester.

The vote by the state system’s Board of Governors to proceed with the merger plans.

The vote, on April 28, kicked off a 60-day period of public comment that ends on Wednesday. The chair of the board, in a news release, called the vote “the most significant reimagining of public higher education since the system was formed, in 1982.” In addition to public hearings, held in early June, the system accepted feedback via email and an online form.

The number of pages in the PDF of public comments about the mergers received in a one-month period.

In the first 30 days of the comment period, comments to the board poured in from all corners: students, alumni, parents, donors, faculty, and staff members. There was some support for the mergers, but many commenters pushed back against the idea. They cited a lack of specific information about how the plans would affect sports as well as student recruitment and retention, and they said a timeline for the mergers was rushed, among other things.

The estimated reduction in the cost of earning a degree, according to the merger plans.

Students would pay less to earn their degrees, even though cutting tuition isn’t on the table. The cost savings is expected to come from a shorter time to degree, with students taking dual-enrollment courses, online classes, or both. Lower student fees and more federal work-study opportunities are among other factors expected to help students cut costs.

The number of systemwide jobs estimated to be cut as of 2023.

Details on how many jobs will be lost because of the mergers aren’t made clear in the plans. But a report by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says that the more than 1,500 job cuts represent a nearly 14-percent reduction in the system’s work force, and include the loss of 809 faculty positions.

The money allocated in the state’s budget for the redesign of the system.

The budget, which passed the legislature, is slated to be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. The allocation is part of a $200-million commitment over four years.

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