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Pennsylvania plans to merge 6 state universities. But some fear ‘a slow death’ for troubled schools.

Under the plan for the two proposed mergers, the universities would retain their campuses, but report to a single leadership team and have one staff and budget.

Lock Haven University would merge with Bloomsburg and Mansfield universities under a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education proposal.
Lock Haven University would merge with Bloomsburg and Mansfield universities under a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education proposal.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

LOCK HAVEN, Pa. — Kayla Shutters loves Lock Haven University’s bucolic setting along the Susquehanna River, its tree-lined Ivy Lane, the close-knit relationships with professors who know her by name.

During the pandemic, the triple major in art, English, and psychology spent her days inside the fine arts building, taking some classes on Zoom, others in person, and drawing, painting, and sculpting in her art studio.

But if she had to do it over again, Shutters, 21, said she would have chosen another college — given the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s plan to merge Lock Haven with Bloomsburg and Mansfield Universities.

“I’m nervous about the future and what’s going to be offered,” said the native of Weedville, in Elk County.

Professors at the 2,900-student state university worry that many might transfer. A survey of students showed 61% of respondents would be less likely to attend Lock Haven if, as proposed under the merger, they have to take some classes online. Faculty are concerned enrollment will drop so much that their school, a top employer in Clinton County and the heart of their community, will eventually become a branch of Bloomsburg or be phased out entirely.

“A slow death, that’s what I fear,” said longtime Lock Haven psychology professor Mark Cloud.

The plan also calls for merging Clarion, California, and Edinboro into one university and constitutes the biggest change in the system’s 38-year history. Administrators say the consolidation — planned for the 2022-23 school year — will save schools, not hasten their demise.

They project enrollment will grow at the six campuses in western and north-central Pennsylvania as academic choices across three campuses expand. And consolidation could persuade the Republican-controlled legislature to provide more funding for the new schools and the system’s eight other universities — a must if the system is to survive, officials say.

“If the legislature sees the efforts being made to right the ship, I really believe there will be more,” said State Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), a member of the system’s board of governors.

More than a half-dozen other states have consolidated colleges or considered doing so in recent years. In Pennsylvania, the merger means campuses would report to a single leadership team and operate with one staff and budget. The two mergers are projected to save millions of dollars over time and improve operating margins within three to five years.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania's state university system votes to proceed with plans to merge schools

But students could be asked to take up to one in four courses online, and what happens with sports is still uncertain.

Interviews with more than 50 students, faculty, alumni, administrators, board members, lawmakers, and government officials show no clear consensus on how to fix the troubled system. Of the more than 100 who testified during about eight hours of public hearings this month, only one spoke in favor.

The criticism was overwhelming, multifaceted, and heartfelt. It changed the thinking of at least one board member, State Sen. Judith Schwank (D., Berks), who says delaying the plan, which the board is scheduled to vote on next month, may be warranted.

“I continue to maintain we have to change,” Schwank said. “But we may need to take more time.”

Several board members, including chair Cynthia Shapira, said waiting would cost money, create uncertainty for more students, and delay improvements to put the schools on a much-needed upward trajectory.

She remains convinced the approach is right.

“I am committed to going forward with the principles in the plan,” she said.

A 10-year decline

Enrollment in the 14-university state system has plummeted by more than 25,000 students, or almost 22% since the 2010 peak of 119,513.

The pandemic has strained families financially, said system chancellor Daniel Greenstein. Deposits and completed applications for the fall were down almost 7% across the system at the end of May, compared with the same time last year. Greenstein said there was no evidence that declines were worse at schools slated for consolidation.

The decade-long enrollment decline is partly due to a national drop in high school students that is challenging most colleges.

Cost is also an issue. Before Greenstein’s arrival, tuition rose annually, reducing the gap in the average net price of attendance between system schools and competitors. A decade ago, that gap was more than $6,000. In 2018-19, the gap with state-related universities including Temple and Penn State had shrunk to $1,629, and with private four-year schools to $2,697.

Professors and Democratic lawmakers say Pennsylvania, which ranks near the bottom of states in per capita funding of higher education, has forced the tuition increase. Critics point to former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s decision to cut the system’s funding 18% in 2011, then freeze it the following year.

Greenstein estimates it would take $300 million — on top of the system’s current $477 million allocation — to make Pennsylvania reach the middle.

Compounding the problem, as enrollment grew in the decade prior to 2010, universities built expensive residence halls to compete with other colleges. That added tremendously to their debt load, now at about $1 billion. Today, many beds aren’t filled.

» READ MORE: Commenters overwhelmingly opposed state university mergers at first day of hearings

Buckling under financial pressure, universities have eaten into their reserves, which stood at $780 million in July 2020. Earlier this year, half the schools did not have 180 days of reserves on hand.

Financially stronger universities, like West Chester, which has continued to grow, have been subsidizing weaker ones, threatening their vitality, Greenstein said.

The system several years ago launched plans to put universities on firmer financial footing within five years, including cutting under-enrolled programs and hundreds of faculty and staff positions through retirements, attrition, and layoffs. Last summer, lawmakers passed legislation that allowed university consolidations.

A local tradition

Lock Haven and most other schools targeted for integration have long anchored their communities. Founded in 1870 as the Central State Normal School, a teachers college, Lock Haven became part of its name in 1926. About 40% of Lock Haven students come from within 100 miles of campus. All three Clinton County commissioners are Lock Haven graduates.

Banners hang downtown: “Soar Higher at the Haven. Lock Haven University.”

“For a lot of rural communities like mine, we don’t have many options for state schools that are close to home,” said Evie Russell, a 2021 Lock Haven graduate from Smethport, near the New York border. Both her parents got Lock Haven degrees.

The proposed merger stunned Lock Haven city officials and faculty, who thought the school was improving under its five-year plan. Lock Haven still has about $45 million in reserves and looks as good as or better financially than some other system universities, said Cloud, the psychology professor. Enrollment has actually grown the last couple of years, he said, and student retention has improved.

“It’s frustrating because we truly believe had the prior president continued to work on the problem, they would have turned it around,” Lock Haven Mayor Joel Long said.

Former Lock Haven president Rob Pignatello, now at Fairleigh Dickinson University, didn’t return a call for comment.

Bashar Hanna, Lock Haven’s interim president, said the school has seen enrollment fall 47% from its high of 5,450 students and faces about $50 million in deferred maintenance.

“If we were to begin addressing that, there goes our reserves,” said Hanna, who also is Bloomsburg’s president and lead president for the merger.

He said Lock Haven will do better as part of a larger university, giving students access to more programs.

“Everything we are doing is to expand opportunities for students,” Hanna said.

Professors worry students won’t see it that way.

Erin Kennedy, the psychology department chair, said a student who had a 3.98 GPA and was nominated for a prestigious department award informed her she is transferring.

The student wrote: “The changes being made to LHU do not align with the university where I want to finish my degree.”

Jordan O’Reilly, 19, an art major from Somerset, N.J., has also looked elsewhere.

“I don’t want to leave,” she said, “but if I have to, I’m not opposed to it.”

Professors fear enrollment at a merged Lock Haven will drop so much the school will close. Greenstein said the law that permitted integrations doesn’t allow closure, but to ease concerns, system officials may add language prohibiting closure to the resolution the board considers.

Many students are confused about what a merger would mean. They worry about losing Lock Haven’s identity, not being able to take courses in person, and keeping sports teams.

Sixteen percent of Lock Haven students play sports, including Gavin Troutman, a rising junior from Oley Valley. He said he favors the merger if he can still play baseball for Lock Haven.

If not, he said, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

Greenstein said the board may have to vote without knowing whether the NCAA will allow all six campuses to maintain individual teams.

Kayla Shutters, the triple major, is more concerned about cuts to programs and faculty, which system officials say would happen without a merger because of the enrollment drop. She’s also worried about students having to take some classes online or travel to another campus.

Learning is so much better in person, Shutters said. She recalled a lesson in her freshman global politics class when the professor staged a water-gun battle to make a point — hard to do on Zoom. Traveling to other campuses could be challenging for students with jobs or who play sports, she said.

Hanna said 75% of Lock Haven students are enrolled in eight disciplinary areas, all of which will continue to be offered on campus. Half the system’s students, Greenstein said, already take at least one class online each year. And 41% of Lock Haven students who responded to the system survey, the highest percentage, said they would be willing to take up to a quarter of classes online.

“It sort of opens up the door for other possibilities with majors that we don’t carry here,” said Bri Simpson, a 2021 graduate from Harrisburg.

A national trend

Other states — including Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Vermont, Louisiana, Alaska, and Wisconsin — have consolidated some colleges or considered it.

In Georgia, the move brought better student retention and graduation rates, as schools shifted more money into academic supports, including advisers, said Lauren Russell, associate professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government.

Mergers generally result in savings of 3% to 10% in administrative costs, said Ricardo Azziz, a University at Albany, SUNY, professor who cowrote Strategic Mergers in Higher Education. But the goal should be to improve learning opportunities for students, and if done right and not out of desperation, mergers do that, he said.

Pennsylvania, he said, is right to merge universities “before the wheels fall off.”

Joni E. Finney, a recently retired director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at Penn, doesn’t like Pennsylvania’s merger plan but recognizes the system is probably doing the best it can. Pennsylvania, she said, has too many public and private colleges with similar missions and no clear coordination from the state. Until that happens, more money won’t help, she said.

“You’re just propping up a very, very expensive system that doesn’t serve enough students,” she said.

Others say more state funding is what’s needed.

“Higher education has been starved for years,” said State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia), a 2006 Millersville graduate. “Now all of a sudden it’s time to downsize and consolidate? No! Fund it.”

State Rep. Torren Ecker (R., Adams) rejects that the problem is all about funding. “Some of these schools just weren’t operating at a place where even funding them makes any sense,” he said.

Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty, said Greenstein should have asked for more than a 2% increase in funding.

“All they can do is say no,” Martin said.

Greenstein said he asked the state in 2019 for $100 million more over five years to redesign the system, a request that remains on the table, and he has made it clear the universities need more. Talks continue about having the state assume some debt for the residence halls, and the allocation of more federal stimulus funds, he said.

“There is no doubt on either side of the aisle that we need help and the state has a role,” he said.

Approving the mergers could help that cause, Ecker said.

“If you are taking steps to make things better and to try to be fiscally responsible ... and it’s successful,” the lawmaker said, “then I would be more likely to support more financial support down the road and look at ways to boost up these schools.”

Martin, the Lancaster County lawmaker, would like to see student costs lowered.

Greenstein said it would cost $75 million to reduce every student’s tab by $1,000. He would welcome state support to do it.

“This is not an either-or situation,” said Shapira, the board chair. “Better aligning revenue with expenses has to be done, and the state absolutely has to make a major investment in the system.”

The view from Water Street

In Lock Haven, the community is split.

Businesses whose customers come from the university and who rely on student workers worry how they would manage if enrollment declines.

“That affects our town,” said Mary Winner, owner of Gio’s 222 Hair Salon and mother of a Lock Haven graduate.

Mike Flanagan, CEO of the Clinton County Economic Partnership, worries about possible job loss and its “trickle-down impact.”

“But we also feel that [consolidation], based on enrollment and financial numbers, is needed in some form to help keep as much of our local campus as possible,” he said.

Lock Haven City Council passed a resolution opposing the merger in its current form. Long, the mayor, also opposes it.

But County Commissioners Jeff Snyder, a Republican, and Angela Harding, a Democrat, are cautiously optimistic.

Harding said she was pleased that students’ diplomas would still have the Lock Haven name and that the university took a plan to outsource custodians and grounds workers off the table in consideration of the community.

“If they do everything they are promising they are going to do, we believe it will be successful,” Snyder said.

Hanna said Lock Haven will work to stem enrollment decline. The university plans to meet with superintendents whose districts provide almost half of Lock Haven students to develop agreements that would allow students to get college credit in high school. It also intends to deepen relationships with community colleges to increase transfers.

And a student success center aimed at raising retention and graduation rates will open this fall. The more students that stay into junior and senior year and live and eat off campus, the better it will be for Lock Haven, Hanna said.

Cloud noted all of that could happen without a merger. What’s needed, the professor said, is a way to lower tuition and costs compared with other colleges.

“We need a plan that offers real solutions to the problems our institutions face,” he said.