Pa. state colleges will look at merger, closure of campuses

Students walking across campus. Cheyney University 1837 University Circle Cheyney Pa 10/20/2016 ( RAYMOND W HOLMAN JR / For the Inquirer )

With falling enrollment and stagnant funding, Pennsylvania's state university system is undergoing a strategic review that could result in the merger or closure of some of its 14 campuses, according to system officials.

It's the first time in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's 35-year history that such options will be looked at, according to a system official.

The decision comes as many colleges across the region and nation have struggled with falling enrollment as the number of high school graduates declines and the higher-education market becomes more competitive.

“States are wrestling with the same issues we are, leading to the reorganization of public university systems in a number of states across the country, including the merger or even closure of institutions,” system chancellor Frank T. Brogan said at a breakfast Thursday in Harrisburg. “Is that where we are headed? That's a question I can't answer today. … But it is a question we must ask — and answer — this year.”

The 105,000-student system has endured its sixth straight year of enrollment decline. In 2010, nearly 120,000 students were enrolled.

The system also has endured cuts in state funding. Only in the last couple of years has funding increased. But, noted Cynthia D. Shapira, chair of the system’s board of governors, funding remains $60 million below what it was the year before the recession began.

The system will need to make cuts to keep its budget balanced this year, system spokesman Kenn Marshall said, noting increased costs incurred due to contract settlements. He said the system has asked for a $61 million funding increase from the state for 2017-18, but with the state’s deficit, it’s not clear what the governor will propose next month.

Among the schools in the system are West Chester, the largest of the 14 with more than 17,000 students and the one that has seen the most growth in recent years. Also part of the system is Cheyney, a historically black university with 746 students. Cheyney has struggled with deficits and lost more than half of its enrollment in six years, though it saw an enrollment increase of 35 students this school year.

Other universities in the system are: Bloomsburg, Indiana, California, Mansfield, Millersville, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Lock Haven, and Clarion.

Lock Haven saw the largest percentage decline in students in 2016-17, 8.4 percent. Indiana lost the most students, 661 — a 4.8 percent decline.

Besides West Chester and Cheyney, Slippery Rock was the only university with an increase in the student body last fall.

Kenneth M. Mash, president of the  Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties union, said the chancellor has been talking about a strategic review for some time.

"We're academics. We don't think there’s anything wrong in studying things," said Mash, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg. "But you can’t really comment on something that doesn't exist yet."

The information-gathering phase of the strategic review began several months ago, Brogan said.

“We will be taking a hard look at how we are organized today, and how we need to be organized in the future,” he said. “Every bit of this system … will be examined.”

The review, which will draw input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and elected leaders, will more than “tinker around the edges,” Brogan said.

“We are approaching this strategic review with no restraints, no preconceptions, and no limits,” he said.

It’s not clear how long the review will take, though Brogan said he wanted to get answers this year. If a university were merged or closed, it could require legislative approval, and that’s not something likely to happen quickly, certainly not by the next academic year.

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