Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Wolf delivered his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in February of 2019. Wolf's signing of a bill authorizing significant changes to the state's regional university system could result in job loss and education opportunities for Pennsylvania's rural communities. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

On July 1, 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 50 into law, authorizing significant reorganizations of the state’s regional university system. Two weeks later, Dan Greenstein, Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), proposed a set of campus mergers that represent fundamental changes for nearly half of the system’s institutions, all of which primarily serve rural communities. Since that time, two different merger scenarios emerged, with the current plan collapsing Edinboro, Clarion, and California universities into one institution in the western part of the state and Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg universities into one institution in the northeast. Although the logic for these mergers has fluctuated, the discussions regularly include some version of the narrative that the current paths of these institutions are unsustainable given Pennsylvania’s changing demographics, with related comments about an “oversupply” of higher education in the Commonwealth.

But, as someone who studies rural-serving colleges and grew up in a PASSHE town, it’s concerning that these conversations are happening in ways that are not aligned with evidence-based decision making. These decisions are so important to our communities that we should be committed to making sure that our assumptions are founded and our solutions are meaningfully tailored to the stated goals. Below, I list three of the most fundamental assumptions in these conversations and highlight the ways in which the lack of evidence supporting these discussions could lead us down a path where rural communities are negatively affected and the PASSHE system fails to achieve its goals. I then follow with a discussion of how the process can be improved going forward.

Assumption 1: The proposed “integrations” will substantially cut costs without leading to substantial job loss in rural communities and without significantly limiting student opportunities.

The stated goal is to cut the cost of attendance by 25% and the cost to students by 10%, while indicating that eliminating academic programs and jobs is not the primary intent of the reorganizations. Unfortunately, the aims of significant cost cutting while preserving jobs are inherently at odds. The system’s 2021–2022 appropriations request indicates that 75% of PASSHE’s education and general expenditures come from personnel costs. The PASSHE system office, the organization that governs individual institutions, has already established shared services across campuses for payroll, IT, and procurement, which has already achieved a high level of administrative “integration” across these individual colleges. The PASSHE system has already reduced its workforce, with the appropriations request documenting that total employee headcount is already down by roughly 2,500 (17.3%) since the system’s peak enrollment in 2010.

If those changes have not already realized adequate cost savings, what evidence suggests that the campus-level consolidations would work? This new proposal would reduce these down to two entities, each of which will have one accreditation, “a single president, a single leadership team, a single faculty, and a single academic program array,” according to the PASSHE Chancellor, who said the six campuses would still retain their identities. On its face, this sounds like it could be a reasonable compromise, but when we look closer at how that rhetoric translates into implementation, we see most of the administrative “efficiencies” that could be achieved through merging functions are already in place. How can these mergers meaningfully cut the cost of attendance solely by integrating the academic leadership teams, which, even collectively, would barely move the needle on the budget? It seems like major layoffs would be necessary, a concern echoed by college and community members.

Assumption 2: Demographic trends are forcing the state’s hand.

Shifting state demographics have been asserted as the prevailing rationale for the proposed mergers, and it’s certainly true that Pennsylvania is experiencing a decrease in the number of high school graduates. These traditional-aged students represent PASSHE’s primary source of enrollments, making such decreases challenging. However, instead of kneecapping these campuses, the state should be financially empowering them to reach and educate the many working adults and other underserved populations across the state who could benefit from an affordable PASSHE education. In reality, the system’s enrollment challenges go far beyond demographics. PASSHE has been pushed to this point by the state’s chronic underfunding of public higher education, with Pennsylvania ranked at the bottom, nationally, for higher education spending per full-time equivalent student and per-capita, which saw a 35% decrease between 2007–2017. As a result, Pennsylvania’s published in-state tuition rates are among the highest in the country.

Coupled with the demographic rationale is the myth that Pennsylvania currently has an oversupply of (public) higher education that must be addressed. However, decreasing PASSHE enrollments are not a reliable measure to assert that there are simply too many postsecondary education options for residents. Neither is a simple count of public four-year campuses across the state, which is, admittedly, a large number. Instead, the question of oversupply must also consider questions of physical and digital access, institutional capacity, cost of attendance, program offerings, and external policy factors. And Pennsylvania’s lack of a state-level governing or coordinating board has created an ultra-competitive environment and further complicates the oversupply argument. Even if there were an “oversupply” (however that is defined and measured), our goal of being good stewards of state resources through sound policy and resilient institutions requires us to ask: 1) if the problem (if it exists) is one that PASSHE should solve alone, and 2) whether this proposal is an actual solution that brings more benefits than harm to our students and our communities.

Assumption 3: These changes will not detrimentally impact rural communities.

At the most fundamental level, PASSHE is comprised of place-based institutions. Meaning, the teaching-focused PASSHE institutions existed more than half a century before states were thinking of public higher education in terms of “systems,” and they grew organically alongside the communities and regions where they are located. Simply put, over their respective 150-year (or longer) histories, the six campuses slated for merger have become indistinguishable from the communities that bear the same names. The Chancellor’s previous system-level experience comes from the University of California System, which is, conversely, comprised largely of placed research universities, half of which have been founded since 1950 and were intentionally located and established as members of the system. This distinction matters.

None of the narratives around these proposed mergers thoroughly examine the deep, negative impacts that will ripple out from these campuses to effect entire (mostly rural) regions of the state. A report published earlier this year by the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (where I am a co-director) demonstrated the crucial role that rural public colleges play in their regions, using a sample of institutions that included Lock Haven. Among our findings is that rural public colleges are absolutely critical providers of postsecondary education, particularly regarding the conferral of certificates and associate’s degrees and in delivering online graduate education. They enhance cultural offerings and they are valuable public health partners, a role emphasized during the pandemic. Further, these campuses are important sources of regional employment, both in the form of direct employment by the institution and secondary employment by retail, hospitality, and service businesses that exist because the institution does. They train nurses for local hospitals and teachers for local schools. Their value to their regions cannot be overstated.

The table below presents data from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Compared to the eight institutions spared from merging, the to-be-merged institutions, on average, serve a larger percentage of low-income students receiving a Pell grant, spend more on teaching, and have lower total expenses, and they do it on less state funding per full-time equivalent student. These are not campuses that fit a narrative of poor performance, and in the communities they call home, the effects will extend far beyond campus borders. As faculty members are forced to move to other institutions and states, their earnings will leave Pennsylvania’s rural communities, as well. Reductions in the instructional workforce will result in a shrinking local tax base as these families leave the area in search of other employment. Losing good-paying jobs in these communities, and in the case of the western merger, pushing more students online, will have devastating impacts on local businesses. This will undoubtedly impact K-12 school funding as lost jobs result in lower property values and tax revenue, and could endanger the stability of the rural schools that serve these regions. Another easily overlooked impact is the loss for the community-based organizations that rely on the university community for volunteers and board members. These are only a few ways in which these mergers could negatively impact rural regions across the state, and they all warrant meaningful opportunities for these communities to contribute to the planning process.

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

Suggestions for Starting Down a Better Path

It’s easy to criticize policy proposals, but it’s harder to offer better solutions. In this case, I believe there are clear first steps that are necessary, as well as options for other policy and governance options that could open other paths to supporting and strengthening higher education in Pennsylvania. Here are a few options, organized by stakeholders, that would be important to consider moving forward.

PASSHE: The first action system leadership should take is to immediately and indefinitely pause any further steps toward these “integrations” until there is better evidence of the possible benefits and likely drawbacks that would come from these decisions. Hit the pause button by installing interim presidents into all open campus presidencies on multi-year contracts who are retired university presidents/chancellors who can focus on maintaining stability while a better planning process is executed. Build a better process that will utilize a true community-based approach that incorporates appropriate respect for the unique histories of these institutions and the critical roles they play in their regions. This new process must include students, faculty, staff, local businesses, community organizations, K-12 schools, and government agencies from each impacted region, as well as system representatives. And, of course, abandon any threats to dissolve the system.

State Lawmakers: If lawmakers are concerned about financial stability, coordination across institutions, and how to respond to demographic declines, the conversation cannot focus only on PASSHE institutions. The legislature could be well-served by establishing a state-level coordinating board that is appropriately empowered to manage the diverse and competing interests of PASSHE, the state-related universities, and the 15 community colleges in a manner that prioritizes the needs of the commonwealth and its citizens over the interests of any one institution or system. Instead of a mismanaged piecemeal approach, a more comprehensive strategy could present opportunities to leverage synergies and strengths across systems.

Institutional Leaders: If a better process is enacted, be willing to engage in it. Support efforts by faculty and staff to understand and communicate the effects of these changes, and listen to your students and community. Continue to be willing to advocate for their best interests, while also considering good-faith changes to stabilize these campuses.

The People of Pennsylvania: Lastly, action is required on the part of the broader Pennsylvania electorate. If you also see how the proposed mergers will cause harm to the students and communities that rely on these campuses, make that known. Contact your state senators and representatives, and the members of PASSHE’s Board of Governors, to share why these campuses and communities deserve more involvement in any process that will decide their fates. If there are community meetings, please attend and ask how you can support the efforts to explore the paths that will lead to a positive, sustainable, community-based future for Pennsylvania higher education.

I think a lot about the proposed PASSHE mergers these days, not because of my professional expertise, but also because it’s personal for me. I grew up in Edinboro, a town that will feel the effects of a western merger aimed at expanding online, rather than on-campus, program offerings. My neighbors growing up were Edinboro faculty and staff, my sister is an Edinboro graduate, as are many of my childhood friends, and my husband, a first-generation college student and son of a Sri Lankan immigrant, is a graduate of Lock Haven.

So, while I did not attend one of these campuses and do not work at one now, these institutions have played an important role in my life nonetheless. Each year, the PASSHE campuses directly impact tens of thousands of lives and indirectly impact millions more. They are resilient, innovative institutions that stand on the front lines in the struggle to create economic mobility, support Pennsylvania’s communities, and make sure that the promise of prosperity is open to all. If we’re really committed to making sure that Pennsylvania’s higher education system thrives in the years to come, that commitment must extend to a clear-eyed look at the assumptions embedded in these policy proposals and the extent to which the evidence supports these efforts. The need for change is undoubtable, but there is a better way forward that involves all stakeholders and a commitment to honest, informed dialogue.

Dr. Andrew Koricich is an associate professor of higher education at Appalachian State University and a co-director at the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.  His research expertise is in rural issues in postsecondary education with a particular focus on rural-serving colleges and universities.