With the Board of Governors approving the Act 50 Implementation Policy Wednesday, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) will begin the next steps of integrating six of its universities into two unified systems.
The policy, which is required by the law, allows the board to develop proposed and finalized plans for the affiliation and consolidation of the universities that were identified over the summer.
Those plans consist of Clarion, Edinboro and California Universities in the west and Bloomsburg, Mansfield and Lock Haven Universities in the northeast.
PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein said that if everything goes according to plan, the board could have a proposed plan as early as April. Before approving the plan, the board would entertain a 60-day commenting period from the public.
With that time taken into consideration along with the board meeting schedules and academic calendars, if approved, the affiliations could go into effect as early as August 2022.
The policy, which does not affect West Chester and Indiana Universities since their enrollment last year was greater than 10,000, was approved unanimously by the board.
The move toward the two affiliations is a major part of the third phase of PASSHE’s system redesign plan. The board hopes the move addresses two major aspects for the system: financial hardship and declining enrollment.
In slides presented earlier this month during the chancellor’s virtual visit to SRU, data from PASSHE showed that three of the six universities apart of the affiliation process were insolvent, with Lock Haven and California Universities considered financially unstable by the system. Bloomsburg is the only university out of the six to be considered financially secure.
The board hopes that by combining these universities, their financial health will improve over time by sharing services and degree-sharing partnerships. Just this year, PASSHE was able to save more than $50 million in part from shared services, according to Greenstein.
If early projections are correct, the system will begin to see the positive effects in the budget between late 2023 and 2025.
As for changing demographics of students, university presidents are looking to utilize their strengths in attracting students who may not be interested in the traditional college experience.
Clarion President Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson said that the school already has strong online programs that have only improved since the pandemic. By expanding those programs with the affiliation, universities will be able to cut costs and “put money back in students’ pockets,” Pehrsson said.
In the northeast, the affiliation hopes to grow their graduate programs and offer “niche” degrees that do not compete with other universities in the state system, said Bashar Hanna, Bloomsburg University president.
Hanna said it would also likely increase its offering of non-degree programs for those looking for post-secondary education to improve their marketability in the workforce.
Greenstein said he believes that by diversifying the systems offerings in education, enrollment will increase. He said it will also help fill a gap in the Pennsylvania workforce that requires over half of workers to have some form of post-secondary education.
The system is currently working on what the universities will look like post-integration.
Greenstein, along with the universities’ Councils of Trustees and the Board of Governors, has said the individual school identity is important. Part of developing the integration is looking at what parts make up a university’s identity and how to maintain that.
One thing that is for certain is that each affiliation will operate under a single accredited entity, according to Greenstein.
The process now will look at what integrated universities look like and how they operate. Greenstein said all university stakeholder groups will be a part of the process and will get all the answers to what integration means during this time.
“By the time a plan is released, if a stakeholder group is surprised by anything, we have not done our job,” Greenstein said.