PASSHE Consolidation Plan Is All Wrong
As a New Jersey resident close to the Pennsylvania border, I must read news stories about the state and state-related universities in two states. There’s one good reason: some schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, aka PASSHE, offer tuition reductions for New Jersey residents. Qualified Garden State residents can get attractive offers to attend East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg or Slippery Rock. West Chester University is one of the top 25 out-of-state schools that attract New Jersey residents.
This is a lengthy post. If you are familiar with PASSHE schools, or considering them, please read on.
PASSHE schools attempt to offer the least expensive residential college experience for an in-state student.The PASSHE schools that I have visited as a college admissions advisor have three things parents like: low costs, nice residence halls and pre-professional preparation. But aside from West Chester University, which is near Philadelphia and Slippery Rock, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, their enrollments have either leveled off or declined since 2005. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the largest school in 2004-2005 had over 12,000 undergrads. It has fewer than 9,000 today. West Chester, now the largest school, had fewer than 11,000 undergrads in 2004. Fifteen years later it has nearly 15,000.
Regional public college enrollments drop when regions lose population. However, PASSHE schools attempt to counteract the problem.
Individual campuses offer unique majors that attract Pennsylvanians from outside their region as well as out-of-state students. Bloomsburg University, for example, offers Medical Imaging and Radiation Science, tough to find at any school. California University of Pennsylvania has Golf Course Management and Mechatronics. Shippensburg has several engineering programs that are not offered at the other system schools. Slippery Rock is a good place to prep for physical or occupational therapy, or to become a physician’s assistant. Given the time I can find more examples where a PASSHE school would be an attractive academic option.
When enrollments drop financial heartbreaks arise.
A regional public university could raise tuition and fees for the high-demand majors, but not all programs across the board. Resident tuition and fees at PASSHE schools will remain at around $8,300 for the third consecutive year. That’s less than half the resident charges set by Penn State or Pitt. If a system limits revenues too long through tuition freezes and out-of-state students (through tuition reductions) growth won’t happen. Cuts will be made to non-academic services first, faculty next.
These schools also compete in their own athletic conference and award athletic scholarships. Those cost money, too. It has to be hard for an athletic department to find the money, even for in-state athletes, when the news around the system’s enrollment trends is bad. Coaches must also have a hard time recruiting athletes when word is getting around that their college might be closing.
The system has proposed a unique solution–and it’s made many people unhappy.
The PASSHE administration is collecting comments about a proposed consolidation plan. Six universities would be merged into two. One merger would happen in the Northeast, the other in the West. The merged schools would have one administration, probably fewer academic programs on the less populated campuses. But each campus would keep its own name and athletic program.
In order to make the plan work financially without a major tuition and fee increase, the schools would have to lay off untenured faculty, negotiate early retirements with more senior professors and offer fewer non-academic student services. Obviously, no one who works at PASSHE schools wants to lose their job. Parents and students would not like the thought of paying more to get less.
But when I read the System’s proposal to consolidate six public universities into two, I found this on Page 1.
The integrated university will have:
A robust student recruitment process with an expansing array of high schools, community college (only 15% of whose students attend a State System university after leaving community college), and other education providers, including robust dual enrollment and transfer articulation agreements and associated student supports.
See that information highlighted in bold? That made me wonder:
- Why do transfer students choose to go elsewhere?
- Do the community college graduates stop at the Associates degree?
- Or do they leave without it?
Curious, I went to the Web site for the Pennsylvania Association of Community Colleges. There I learned that the state’s 14 community college systems have articulation agreements with all 14 PA State System Schools. They also have agreements with Southern New Hampshire University, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, Carlow University and Lackwanna College. But they do have not have agreements with Penn State, Temple or Pitt. Those schools have their own regional campuses. Students might begin their education at a regional campus close to home before transferring to the main campus.
Erie County Community College is the only one that has no such agreements. But its charter was approved only last year. Edinboro University is the only PASSHE campus in Erie County. I would have to believe that Edinboro would attract most of the transfer students in the near future–if it survives. I don’t know the politics in Erie County, Pennsylvania. But from a distance I ask myself why the interests of the two and four-year college could not be combined into one regional school.
Articulation agreements are supposed to be seamless, especially among a small number of four-year colleges
The community college system has the right idea with the online transfer portal. It looks easy to use. The language on the pages is clear. But there must be some disconnects if only 15 percent of the community college students ever transfer to one of the partner schools. Ideally, a community college student should know the courses required to complete their degree at the four-year school closest to home, or the nearest campus that has their desired major.
Community colleges are free to have articulation agreements with other colleges.
Allegheny County Community College, for example, serves the Pittsburgh metro area. It has agreements with six PASSHE schools and several others. Something must be wrong if transfer students are not opting for the less expensive route to earn a bachelors degree. However, I saw that each PASSHE partner had few Partner to Partner, aka ‘P2P’ agreements with the second-largest community college system in the state. Kutztown, the campus furthest from Allegheny County has the most, nine, plus general transfer agreements for all other majors. There is no mention of general transfer agreements for the other five PASSHE schools.
Harrisburg Area Community College has slightly more students than Allegheny County. It has three PASSHE schools as Dual Admission Partners: Bloomsburg, Kutztown and Shippensburg, all in Central Pennsylvania. It also has an articulation agreement with Millersville, which is also in Central Pennsylvania. Yet it does not have an agreement with Lock Haven or Mansfield, which are targeted for consolidation.
The PASSHE consolidation plan is the wrong direction.
System-wide these schools have been losing over a fifth of their freshmen since 2004. More recently, only Slippery Rock and West Chester have kept more than a fifth of their first-year classes. If you cannot cover your losses with transfer students, your school will be in serious trouble. I seriously doubt that the four schools that have the most to lose from consolidation will attract transfer students if they have few academic offerings to interest them. The community colleges also lose. They have fewer public options to refer through transfer advising. If there’s any fear that a school will be targeted for major cuts, or worse, closure, prospective students stay away. That fear has spread, given enrollment declines in the system.
What are some other options?
Rowan University, a regional public school like any PASSHE college, operates the community college systems in three New Jersey counties. Students attend Rowan College where they can earn an Associates degree or prepare to transfer into a four-year degree program. In some cases they transfer to the main campus; in others they finish at the community college site.
Rowan is now the third-largest university in the Philadelphia metro area behind Temple and Drexel. It’s also an NCAA D-3 (non-scholarship) school in varsity sports. Rowan retained 84 percent of the freshmen who entered in fall 2019. Among PASSHE schools only West Chester has done better (86%). Rowan’s four-year graduation rate topped 50% for the class that entered in 2013. But it slipped slightly (49%) for the class that entered the next year. Only two PASSHE schools have done better, West Chester and Slippery Rock.
I have to ask myself these questions when I see what Rowan University has done:
- Could the transfer pathways between the community colleges and the four-year PASSHE schools be clearer?
- Could the brand identify of a four-year college extend to the community colleges instead?
- Which academic programs are in serious danger at the schools that have the most to lose from a consolidation?
- What does a school need to do to improve academic advising?
- Why can’t these schools drop to D-3 in varsity sports, or at least all excluding West Chester, which could move to D-1?
Rowan University (NJ) did not need to go to a state system office for approval.
The university administration worked directly with the community college administrators and trustees as well as the county executives and freeholders. The fastest growing public institution in New Jersey, thanks in part to a $100 million gift from the late industrialist, Henry Rowan, has evolved from a regional public college into an emerging research university. To my knowledge, neither PASSHE nor its member schools has any potential supporter like Henry Rowan. Nor does any PASSHE school have the latitude to set its own course, as Rowan has. Rowan could have also gone its own way in athletics and moved to D-1 or D-2. But it has opted to remain a D-3 school.
Other New Jersey public colleges have set their own directions targeted towards their likely markets for students.
The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), the best example, has become an alternative to Rutgers’ main campus much like William & Mary or Christopher Newport have become alternatives to UVa. and Virginia Tech. Ramapo and Stockton, which have much shorter histories than any PASSHE school, graduate nearly 60 percent of their freshmen on time. New Jersey also has a public university oriented towards non-traditional students, Thomas Edison. Pennsylvania has one, too, Penn State World Campus. But it charges part-time students nearly $600 a credit. A full-time freshman could pay close to $14,000 for their first year. It’s fair to ask why PASSHE could not provide a less expensive public option. It could also serve its own students who might need to make up a class they missed, or take a course while away from campus.
Each school needs to keep the programs that are important to their region first, the state second
When I look at the four campuses that would lose out in a consolidation: Edinboro, Clarion, Lock Haven and Mansfield, they all have majors in high demand fields. Having those major departments answer to another campus would weaken them. It’s too easy for decision makers to give the main campus priority for resources. It’s also easier for parents, school counselors and independent advisors like myself to believe that the consolidated schools would be “lesser” schools to a main campus. Situations where students would take the first two years of a high-demand program such as Nursing or Engineering on a sister campus make little sense. Community college costs less.
It would also be foolish to cut resources to the Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, Psychology, Sociology, Statistics or Economics departments at these schools. They have courses that are required to keep many other programs accredited. These schools were founded as teachers colleges. At the very least they need to offer the appropriate degrees to prepare K-12 teachers in Pennsylvania,.
That leaves the courses and programs where enrollments are low and the courses are not necessary to fulfill requirements in other majors. It also leaves programs where the costs to maintain accreditation would be too high. But these should be campus based decisions. So should coordination with the community colleges. These decisions should not be left to a state system office. But they need to be made quickly by individual schools. This system cannot survive on tuition freezes and declining enrollments. If you have a stake in the success of this system or an individual school within it, let them know what you think.
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