Pennsylvania State University System Merger
By Nate Delesline III
Published on August 5, 2021
Pennsylvania State University System
Six of Pennsylvania's 14 state-run universities will merge into two schools for the 2022-23 academic year. Under the plan, California, Clarion, and Edinboro will become one university with three campuses in western Pennsylvania. Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield, which are located in northeastern Pennsylvania, will also reorganize similarly.
The 18 member Board of Governors for Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE, unanimously approved the merger on July 14. The consolidation plan calls for one president and leadership team to lead each trio of combined campuses. The schools will share academic programs led by a unified faculty.
According to a statement from the board of governors, the merging universities "will maintain their historical names and identities along with robust residential educational experiences while expanding academic program opportunities, enhancing supports that improve outcomes for all our students, and reaching communities that are currently underserved."
The decision affects about 29,000 students out of the 93,000 students in the Pennsylvania state university system. Here's a brief look at each of the schools affected by the board's July 14 decision.
California University of Pennsylvania
Founded in 1852, California University of Pennsylvania is located in California, Pennsylvania, a community of about 6,800 people. Located in the southwestern part of the state, about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh, the nearly 300-acre campus includes a farm for learning and recreation. The school offers more than 100 undergraduate and 50 graduate programs.
Located among rolling hills, Clarion University features popular academic programs in business, education, health, science, and the arts. Founded in 1867, Clarion is located about 75 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in a town of the same name with about 5,000 residents. The university also has a branch campus in Oil City, about 25 miles away from the main campus.
Located in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, Edinboro University began in 1857 as a private training school for teachers. Today, the university offers more than 100 areas of academic study. The 585-acre campus includes 43 buildings, along with woods, open fields, and a 5-acre lake. The university employs nearly 300 teaching faculty members.
Located about 60 miles southeast of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania, Bloomsburg University offers 57 undergraduate and 19 graduate degrees. From a hill, the campus overlooks the town and is located near the community's business district. The school has more than 250 student clubs and organizations.
Lock Haven University
Lock Haven University offers 47 undergraduate majors, and graduate programs in health science, counseling, education, and sport studies. The university's main campus sits in the mountains on the western branch of the Susquehanna River, about 100 miles north of Harrisburg. The town of Clearfield, about 65 miles west, has a Lock Haven branch campus.
Residents of Mansfield and nearby communities founded Mansfield Classical Seminary under the patronage of the Methodist Episcopal Church of New York. The school opened in 1857. The history and establishment of the school and the town intertwine. Located about 130 miles north of Harrisburg, Mansfield University offers 27 bachelor's, nine associate, and two master's programs.
Why Pennsylvania Schools Are Merging
The PASSHE board publicly introduced the school merger plan in April. Supporters say it positions the universities for long-term stability despite declining enrollments and state funding. The headline on the board's announcement of the college merger vote calls the move a "student-centered university integration" plan. However, not everyone agrees that combining six schools into two entities will improve students' educational experience or control Pennsylvania's higher education costs.
Board chairperson Cindy Shapira called the Pennsylvania state university merger decision "the most profound reimagining of public higher education in the commonwealth since the state system began in 1983. This effort has proven we can fulfill what we set out to do — ensuring student and institutional success while providing the highest quality education at the lowest possible price."
Budget deficits and revenue shortfalls prompted merger speculation within PASSHE several years ago. The organization does not oversee some of the state's largest and best-known schools, like Penn State, which has 24 in-state campuses. Pennsylvania also has a separate system of 14 community colleges.
As president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, Dr. Jamie Martin represents about 5,000 faculty members and coaches at PASSHE schools. In a statement, Martin said the association has concerns about integrating the schools. "We hoped improvements could be made that did not involve such fundamental changes to our universities," Martin said.
In addition, Martin said union members expressed concern that the school merger approval process proceeded too fast. And, she added, this decision comes during a pandemic when many faculty and students operated remotely, leaving them less engaged with important campus decisions.
In reply to some student and faculty concerns, the board included language in the merger plan that promises not to close any schools. PASSHE says schools will also keep their names, mascots, brand identities, and traditions.
Looking ahead, "we will continue working to make sure our students are heard — and they must be heard, in person, when they return to campus in the fall. We will do all we can to make sure the outcome is the best it can be for our students," said Martin.
Money and politics played a big part in the merger decision. In Pennsylvania, state legislators make many major funding decisions for public higher education. Legislators supported the merger. This year, they gave PASSHE $50 million to support the process. That's in addition to the organization's $477 million annual budget.
State legislators have promised to provide $150 million more in the next two years. On top of that, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced the state would give an additional $200 million over three years to PASSHE "to help solve its financial problems and prevent layoffs and furloughs."
The coronavirus pandemic hurt the financial outlook for higher education institutions. In previous years, college mergers faced opposition from faculty, alumni, and community members. But now, "while anxieties about lost jobs, forsaken identities, and sidelined athletic teams remain obstacles, they are increasingly being offset by a recognition that future survival may depend more on collaboration than competition," Michael Nietzel, a former president of Missouri State University, wrote in an article for Forbes.
College merger plans and talks remain on the table nationwide. Officials in Wisconsin and New Hampshire may proceed with merging public four-year and two-year or technical schools. In another case, Delaware State University recently completed the acquisition of nearby Wesley College. The move represents the first time a historically Black college or university acquired another higher education institution.
According to the authors of "Strategic Mergers in Higher Education," more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities merged between 2000 and October 2019. One of the book's four co-authors, Guilbert C. Hentschke of the University of Southern California, said in the past, higher education leaders viewed mergers "as synonymous with failure," but that sentiment has shifted. Now, higher ed leaders see mergers as an acceptable strategy to keep a school open and thriving, Hentschke told the New York Times.
What This Means for Students
According to statewide and school leaders, students at the merging colleges should not experience any immediate or significant changes to their academic experience. Prospective students can start and finish their degrees at one of the existing schools. Current students can earn their degrees and graduate at their respective schools.
School leaders also say they will maintain and expand the currently available academic program offerings. In some cases, like at Mansfield University, students will have "access to doctoral level programs which are not currently available."
Students at the merging Pennsylvania state university schools will also gain access to more courses, majors and minors, and degrees. Without the merger, some students at universities affected by the merger said they considered transferring schools. At Pennsylvania's merged universities, transfer students can complete their major and earn a degree at one of the integrated campuses.
PASSHE says schools will offer at least 75% of courses in person at a student's home campus for students who choose majors not located at their home campus. The exact balance between online and in-person courses will vary by major and campus. Right now, "the majority of students currently take at least one online course per semester, so this is consistent with what most students are experiencing now," PASSHE officials said.
The school merger plan's effect on sports remains up in the air. A National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) panel met a few days before the state board's vote to move forward with the mergers. While they discussed how the schools could keep their athletic programs, the NCAA did not make a decision. The NCAA's Division II membership committee will meet next in September. An NCAA spokesperson said on the issue in July, "nothing has moved publicly around any decisions."
Nate Delesline III
Nate Delesline III is a Virginia-based writer covering higher education. He has more than a decade of experience as a newspaper journalist covering public safety, local government, business, transportation, and K-12 and higher education.
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