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Pennsylvania State System Of Higher Education Advances University Merger Plan

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP/KDKA) — The board of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted Wednesday to advance a plan to merge six of its 14 universities into two new institutions, as the system struggles with sinking enrollment and stagnant state aid.

The nearly unanimous vote from the board of governors after a two-hour meeting launches a 60-day public comment period. A final vote could be scheduled for July, with implementation in time for the 2022-23 school year.

Under the plans, Bloomsburg, Mansfield and Lock Haven universities in northern Pennsylvania would merge into one institution and California, Clarion and Edinboro in western Pennsylvania would merge to become another.

"The marketing plan will be in such a way it's outward-facing, so when students apply it's clear. When the parents want information, it's clear where they apply and where the programs are located. So that's in development right now," said Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, who's the president of Clarion University and interim at Edinboro.

All six campuses would remain open, with integrated faculty, curriculum and enrollment strategies, as well as administration efforts to ensure each of the six campuses retain its sports teams.

The point of the move is to help with falling enrollment numbers at each campus by putting them under one umbrella and one name. But some majors or programs will only be offered at one campus with the option for other students to attend virtually.

"It will offer students from each of the three universities more opportunities in their major choices and class choices and have diversity," said Cal U freshman Declan Johnson.

Johnson sees it as a positive to help preserve the university and keep the doors open.

"I live in Fayette County and it's the poorest county in the state so to have this affordable option where people can improve their lives is vital," Johnson said.

The plan envisions reducing the cost of a degree for students by 25%.

The statewide faculty union warned that the consolidation would reduce faculty numbers and academic programs, hurting local economies, driving up student-to-faculty ratios and lengthening commutes for students.

Enrollment has fallen more than 20% since 2010 to below 100,000, driven by steep declines of students from families whose annual incomes are below $110,000, according to the system.

The system has received less state aid than it did in the 2006-07 school year. The board voted to freeze tuition for the third year in a row next year.

While the proposal is not fully ironed out, there are still a lot of questions.

"It's literally the heartbeat of our community. I'm deeply concerned of what this could do when it comes to the impact of our community," said Tracy Becker with Clarion's Chamber of Commerce.

Becker is hopeful the community's concerns will be addressed, and this change won't lead to the demise of the school.

"Does that mean we have less students coming here? That means less people coming here, we don't want to see that. We don't want to see the university go away, we don't want to see our businesses go away. Right now we don't have a lot of answers and I don't know when all those answers will come to play," Becker said.

The next step is for the public to weigh in on the proposal before the final vote in July.

(TM and © Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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