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Six Pennsylvania colleges could be forced to merge with their rivals

The coronavirus pandemic arrived at a terrible time for all us, but especially so for those in higher education at the small school level. The industry was already facing strong headwinds of declining enrollment and lower state contributions, and the pandemic didn't help on either front.

By now it's pretty clear that small schools are going to have to be creative in order to preserve their way of life, and the agency overseeing Pennsylvania's state universities believes it's found such a solution.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education released a 400-page report outlining its plan to merge six of its 14 state colleges into two entities, beginning next fall.

“It is the beginning of the journey, and one, through the experience of building the work included here, that we have every confidence will be successful,” PSSHE chancellor Daniel Greenstein wrote.

Bloomsburg, Mansfield and Lock Haven universities would become one school, and California, Clarion and Edinboro would become another.

The first group is clustered in Central PA, while the second lies along the state's western border.

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The PSSHE's theory is it can save money by eliminating redundancies in the schools' respective administrations. The plan would save $18.5 million over five years, the PSSHE says.

And in looking at the schools' profiles, its easy to see why a bureaucrat tasked with saving money would believe this plan could work. All six schools are state-funded insititutions, named after the rural towns they call home, mostly with undergraduate enrollments in the 3-4,000 range. All happen to compete in the Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and five play football (Mansfield dropped its program in 2006).

Why couldn't the state save money by combining six of the same jobs into two?

School profiles:
Bloomsburg -- Location: Bloomsburg, Pa. | Enrollment: 7,992 undergraduates | Conference: PSAC
Mansfield -- Location: Mansfield, Pa. | Enrollment: 1,792 total students | Conference: PSAC
Lock Haven -- Location: Lock Haven, Pa. | Enrollment: 2,727 undergraduates | Conference: PSAC

California -- Location: California, Pa. | Enrollment: 4,785 undergraduates | Conference: PSAC
Clarion -- Location: Clarion, Pa. | Enrollment: 3,776 undergraduates | Conference: PSAC
Edinboro -- Location: Edinboro, Pa. | Enrollment: 3,146 undergraduates | Conference: PSAC

But where an administrator might see redundancy, a professor, student or alum might see identity.

The president of the state's faculty association said only 8 percent of his group supports the move and only 2 percent believe their students favor the move.

The plan would keep each of the six campuses name "in some form," and all six athletics departments would stay intact. “Athletics are at the core of these deeply rooted and honored local and regional traditions,” one report cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer said.

On the flip side, though, the PSSHE says consolidation must be necessary or some schools may have to close. From the Inquirer: 

But Greenstein has warned that without the consolidations, the system, which operates on a $1.6 billion budget, could face dissolution or have to close some campuses. The move comes as the system has seen its enrollment drop 21% over the last decade.

On the flip side, $18.5 million savings represents a 1.15 percent cut off a $1.6 billion budget. Is there no less disruptive way to save 1.15 percent?

Either way, the PSSHE board of governors is expected to vote on whether to proceed with the plan on Wednesday. Should that vote succeed, the plan would enter a 60-day public comment phase before a final vote this summer.

Read the full report here.