Pa. lawmakers debate plan to consolidate state universities

Democrats are skeptical of the projected savings and worry about job loss. PASSHE leaders say inaction will lead to “worse outcomes.”

A student walks on the Lock Haven University campus in Lock Haven, Pa, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

A student walks on the Lock Haven University campus in Lock Haven, Pa, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives debated a plan Tuesday that would merge six of Pennsylvania’s state universities into two regional schools.

The plan would combine two sets of schools within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg Universities would join together in the northeastern region, as would three western schools: Clarion University, Edinboro University, and California University of Pennsylvania.

During a joint session of the House Education and Appropriation Committees, PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein testified and was met with both fierce opposition and support from lawmakers.

Greenstein encouraged the general assembly to meet somewhere in the middle, but pushed for drastic change in Pennsylvania’s higher education system.

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“This system is at a tipping point,” Greenstein said. “It is no longer sustainable in the current model. And modest tweaks to that model will not serve our students, it will not serve their communities, and it will not serve the state.”

Greenstein said the plan would help cut the cost of getting a degree at each of the schools by as much as 25%. That mostly accounts for students who enter through dual degree programs or from community college partnerships. Students could transfer from nearby community colleges and their credits would count.

There was much confusion about how much money the system would save through the consolidations.

After last week’s PASSHE board meeting, several media outlets, including WHYY, reported Greenstein saying the merger would save $18.4 million over five years — a figure many lawmakers also understood.

On Tuesday, Greenstein clarified that would be a compounding, yearly savings, totaling $100 million over the next five years. Most of those savings would come by cutting administrative and support positions, according to the PASSHE merger report.

System leaders say they need the state to invest $100 million to help cover the transition. Staying the course, Greenstein said, would require a 5% tuition hike that he said would cause the system to lose an additional $50 million in yearly revenue.

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Several House Democrats doubted the savings projections and said they have been waiting for a full economic impact report from PASSHE leaders for months.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about the impact of consolidation-related job loss and predicted the move could lead to even more decreases in student enrollment.

Combined enrollment at Pennsylvania’s 14 public universities fell by over 20% in the last 10 years.

State Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny) criticized the plan for a lack of detail. She said if she wrote the plan’s report in college she would have received an “incomplete.”

“It feels very much like a freshman document rather than something that actually presents a plan,” said Kinkead, a Bloomsburg University alum. “So what I’m left with is far more questions than answers.”

Greenstein embraced the idea that the plan as currently devised is not fully polished.

“Many of the details are there to be worked out over time,” he said.

State Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh) fears the mergers will hurt recruitment efforts.

He said merging school identities and increasing reliance on virtual school in the plan will lead to a perception that school communities are closing.

“I generally believe that this is going to create a spiral effect for the entire system,” Schweyer said. “I wish you the best. I just don’t see it.”

According to Greenstein, 75% of students will have all their needs met by in-person courses. And none of the schools would actually close.

Schweyer also criticized his Republican counterparts who control the chamber for not doing more to invest in higher education. Pennsylvania is counted among the worst in the nation for the percent of funds it contributes to state university budgets.

That’s a fact Greenstein has been highlighting for years ahead of the merger plan.

“If the general assembly wants to get together and correct 20 years of behavior in declining public investment, I’m all in. Let’s talk. But that requires sides coming together,” Greenstein said. “It doesn’t seem to be working well.”

State Rep. John Lawrence (R-Chester) said he isn’t in love with the consolidation plan, but doesn’t see other viable solutions to a “system that is bleeding money.”

He asked Greenstein what would happen if the merger didn’t happen.

Greenstein avoided directly talking about other cuts or wholesale school closures. Instead, he listed options such as tuition hikes, further revenue sharing among state schools, or increased state taxes to support the system.

After much partisan debate, Greenstein urged lawmakers to find some common ground.

“Folks, we’re in trouble. We need your help. This isn’t about me, it’s not even about universities. It’s about the future of the state,” he said. “At some point somewhere in this country we have to figure out how to bring these very different views together.”

Near the end of the hearing, State Rep. Maureen Madden (D-Monroe) said she hopes the plan passes, and that PASSHE receives even more than the asked $100 million.

Greenstein said inaction will lead to worse fates.

“Continuing that pattern is a very bad idea,” he said. “It has dreadful inequitable outcomes.”

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