HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania state higher education system is bracing for further declines in enrollment, Chancellor Daniel Greenstein told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Greenstein, during testimony before the House credit and education committees, said enrollment at the state’s 14 universities would be “challenged” over the next academic year.
He attributed the likely drop in enrollments to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than the system’s recent decision to merge six of its universities into two.
PASSHE’s board of governors in July approved plans to merge the universities of California, Clarion and Edinboro into one university and the universities of Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield into another. As part of the consolidation plan, each campus must retain its historical name, its mascots and its sports teams.
The objective of the system is for the consolidations to be completed in time for the start of the school year in 2022.
“There doesn’t seem to be a model to suggest anything” other than that the pandemic is causing the decline, Greenstein said, adding that he would assume that the students most directly affected would be low-income students and students of color. University data suggests the drop in enrollment may also be due to students dropping out and not returning to campus, he added.
A spokesperson for PASSHE, when contacted about Greenstein’s comments, said enrollment numbers will not be finalized until after the start of the school year.
Last year, 93,704 students were enrolled in PASSHE universities. This was a 2% drop from the previous year, when universities enrolled 95,782 students. The system has suffered a long series of enrollment declines since enrollments peaked in 2010-11 at 119,513, according to state system data.
State Representative Emily Kinkead D-Allegheny asked Greenstein what kind of contingency plans the state system has in the works if its accrediting body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education , opposes consolidation or if the NCAA determines that consolidated universities may not continue to offer separate athletic programs.
âThe NCAA may not allow these universities to keep their individual identities, and you can’t predict that, but I wonder if you have a plan for an alternative,â she asked.
âI have no plans for a hypothesis,â Greenstein said, but added that there is no reason to believe outside groups would take action to undermine the consolidation plan: âTheir work does is not to trip higher education and do things that are bad for students. Their job is to protect higher education and its service delivery.
Most sports teams at PASSHE universities compete at the Division II level, although a handful of programs compete at the Division I level. Previously, PASSHE officials had played down the potential for NCAA action in response. Consolidation, noting that the Penn State and Pitt high campuses had athletic programs outside of the programs offered by the main campuses.
John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers government and state politics. Follow him on twitter @CNHIPA.