State funding for colleges and universities is critical to support the vast majority of high school graduates seeking higher education to prepare them for the career of their choice. It goes without saying that this important investment in the future of these young people will pay big dividends down the road with an educated and job-ready workforce. There’s no doubt that this is money well spent.
However, budgets are finite, and publicly funded colleges and universities must serve a diverse array of students whose needs change with the times. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) — the Commonwealth’s largest higher education system — has grappled with this challenge. By the mid-2010s, enrollment in the system’s universities had declined, and average yearly expenditures of $40 million in reserves was needed to keep the system afloat.
This solution was judged to be unsustainable. In fact, analysis of the long-term impact had predicted that this cash hemorrhage would cause the system to go bankrupt by 2027. In order to avoid this fate, Pennsylvania has joined other states, such as Connecticut, Georgia, Oregon and Vermont, in taking focused action to consolidate some of its public universities.
In taking this dramatic step, the Commonwealth’s overarching vision is that a redesign of PASSHE will return the system to financial viability while better meeting the educational needs of its students.
Overall, the goal of the redesign is to ensure that PASSHE is able to deliver quality, affordable education that enables all students — regardless of where in the Commonwealth they’re from — to meet their career goals. The redesign also emphasizes the continuation of educational services that the local communities around each university depend on. Flexibility is another priority; the redesign is intended to help make PASSHE more responsive and nimbler, so it can continue to evolve along with students’ needs.
The profile of the average college student is not the same as it was even a decade ago, and PASSHE is evolving in response. In addition, the redesign is an opportunity to replicate what has been working well across campuses and to harness the strengths of the system to better address what students want.
The consolidation plan
A review of the system beginning in 2016 suggested the need for a redesign, and by 2017, the PASSHE Board of Governors had adopted strategic priorities for the process. The project proceeded in phases, with the Board of Governors formally approving the redesign in 2021.
A key part of the redesign that emerged was to reduce the 14 universities to 10 by combining certain schools to create regional institutions. Specifically, California, Clarion and Edinboro campuses in the west became Pennsylvania Western University while Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield in the northeast are now known as Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania. None of the campuses have been closed. The consolidations were effective in July 2022.
Many factors were reviewed to formulate the plan, including geographic proximity, alignment of mission, financial health, and financial projections. A key consideration was that consolidated institutions would function as partners, rather than through a new hierarchical structure.
University leaders are required to demonstrate strong collaboration with each other and work together for the best interests of the whole university and student population — a laudable model of cooperative behavior that should serve students well in the working world.
The primary guiding principles in the redesign were assuring student success, using the strengths of the pre-existing institutions, and transforming the governance structure.
Moreover, the plan for consolidation was predicated on these seven assumptions:
- Leaders from the consolidating universities would form a single team.
- There would be one staff and faculty group.
- A single selection of programs would be offered.
- There would be one strategy to manage enrollment.
- A single combined budget would exist.
- All campuses involved would continue to be maintained.
- There would be a single university, reporting to one Board through the Chancellor.
In embarking on the redesign, PASSHE had several distinct outcomes in mind. Student success has been at the forefront of the endeavor — and to see students through to graduation, access is paramount. Providing access includes removing barriers that may impede student learning and participation in campus life.
Reducing student costs is major priority as well. The aim has been to reduce the cost of getting an undergraduate degree by 25%, to be achieved mainly by shortening the time needed to earn a degree, integrating and broadening curricula, and making credits stackable. PASSHE also continues its drive to increase enrollment numbers, encourage more diversity among the student population, and offer more course options to align programs with in-demand careers. In terms of cost savings for PASSHE, a 20% savings, or $24 million, in administrative costs is estimated by 2026.
This comprehensive multi-year reorganization saw the first students arrive at the consolidated universities in time for the 2022 fall semester. The finalized, fully integrated curriculu