Pennsylvania is just the latest state to come up with plans to merge several universities into a few.

The state’s plans, which were unanimously approved by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education board of governors last week, calls for Bloomsburg, Mansfield and Lock Haven universities to merge into one school and Clarion, California and Edinboro universities to merge into another. The state system plans to keep all six campuses, but for each new school there will be a single administration, budget, unified faculty and student information system, according to Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

A video on the PASSHE website asks students to “imagine three campuses working as one to create a powerhouse university, one that gives you the breadth of opportunities found only at some of Pennsylvania’s largest institutions, but with the personal attention and academic support you’d expect at a smaller, hometown campus all so you can experience everything campus life has to offer.”

It promises more courses and degree options, improved advising, internships and student support programs.

At least 75% of students’ courses will be delivered in person on their home campuses, according to the PASSHE website. The majority of students already take at least one online course per semester.

Whether the consolidation works remains to be seen, but one expert pointed to Georgia as an example where similar mergers offer a promising example.

University mergers are growing more common, said Lauren Russell, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied similar school consolidations.

“A lot of the smaller institutions that are ... not as distinctive, not the University of Pennsylvanias, not Harvards, they’re only attracting a small swath of students and they’re having trouble filling classes,” she said. “They might be thinking, ‘we’re doing OK now, but five, 10 years down the line, will we have enough enrollment?’ ”

She said the success of some mergers, including in the Georgia state system, may have led to consolidations becoming more popular.

Russell, who studied the first few Georgia mergers, said the system’s consolidation represents a best-case scenario. After the merger, the schools had better retention rates and more students graduated on time, she said.

The consolidation led to a drop in spending on student services — on items like cafeterias and athletic programs and places they could save by having economies of scale — and an increase in spending on academic support.

“The reason I think this is unique [is] they went about it in a wise and systematic way,” Russell said.

She’s also studied mergers among public and private nonprofit schools from 2000 to 2015. She didn’t find as much strong evidence that student outcomes improved, and found generally that after the merger, schools increased their price because they didn’t have as much competition. But, they also funneled a lot of that increase into financial aid, she said.

Rich Novak, a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said consolidations are becoming more common in some places thanks to declining enrollment, declining state support and competition for students.

“You have a perfect storm hitting institutions pretty hard in some states,” he said.

Novak also said Georgia has been the most successful example of school mergers. A few years ago, University of Wisconsin System’s plan to merge its 13 two-year campuses with seven of its four-year colleges was approved. He said they faced similar issues as those in Pennsylvania and wanted to reduce administrative costs, ensure higher retention and completion rates and to smooth the transition for students with associate degrees to have a pathway to a four-year degree. In Connecticut too, there are plans to consolidate 12 community colleges into a single school.

Novak said it’s too soon to tell whether those plans will yield the intended results, in other states and in Pennsylvania.

“Time will tell, but I’m optimistic it will work,” he said. “It’s a lot of hand wringing, and it’s tough for the board to do this, and tough for [PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein] to do this, but I think they’re making a decision that’s best for the future.”

The unanimous vote last week wasn’t welcomed by all.

Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, spoke to the board of governors before their vote to merge. Martin asked about the extent to which students will need to take online courses, the impact on accreditation and athletic teams. Martin also expressed concerns about the low turnout on a student survey and the lack of a detailed organization chart.

“It is no secret that [the association] has had questions and concerns about the plans, and those who spoke against or who want to delay consolidation have valid, important concerns. We hoped improvements could be made that did not involve such fundamental changes to our universities,” Martin said in a statement after the vote. “There is still a lot to be determined and many questions to be answered. We trust that when the answers come — and as additional feedback and suggestions are given — they will guide the plan moving forward, will allow for course correction when new information or issues suggest it, and will allow for substantive changes, if warranted.”

The changes come amid declining enrollment, which across the system is down about 120,000 from a decade ago, and financial struggles that have been worsened by the pandemic. The enrollment decline is evident in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report that found before the pandemic, just under 1 in 4 beds across the 14 campuses were empty, according to a review of 2019-20 data,

The Morning Call reported on the vulnerability of Mansfield University in 2017. The school was historically reliant on local commuting students and saw its enrollment plunge 38% to 2,198 that year since the fall 2009 semester. Funding for the state system hasn’t kept up either: State tax dollars accounted for 63% of PASSHE’s budget in 1983-84, and 27% in 2016-2017.

PASSHE officials expect students to begin attending their respective integrated universities starting in August 2022. The integrated curriculum is expected to be finalized by August 2024.

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