Three of Pennsylvania's public universities announced this week they intend to "affiliate," though details of the arrangement remain scant.
California, Clarion and Edinboro universities, part of the 14-campus Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), are planning a partnership that officials said in a statement could "change the face of higher education" in the western part of the state.
PASSHE's enrollment has been declining for a decade, and the system is looking to integrate campuses to mitigate its financial struggles.
PASSHE's student count fell about 20% over the last 10 years, a result of changing demographics in Pennsylvania and significant competition for students among the state's public and private colleges. The system collectively enrolled about 95,700 students in the fall of 2019.
But system officials have declined to take drastic actions to solve their financial woes, such as closing or merging campuses. Historically, state lawmakers needed to sign off on such decisions, though legislation passed this summer allows PASSHE leadership to consolidate or expand campuses without their approval.
In July, the same month the bill was signed into law, system Chancellor Daniel Greenstein proposed integrating three pairs of colleges, one of which was California and Clarion. At the time, Greenstein also recommended Edinboro be linked with Slippery Rock University.
Instead, PASSHE will pursue affiliating the trio of schools, which "could hold greater promise," system officials said in the statement.
PASSHE marked California and Clarion as potential partners because of their history offering robust online classes. In their statement, officials said Edinboro is a "welcome contributor" to that venture.
Yet it is unclear, even broadly, how the affiliation would work, or precisely how Edinboro factors into it.
The system has not released details about the plan. And in the statement, officials did not mention whether the universities would retain their full slate of faculty, administrators and staff, though they reference "honoring the local identity and traditional face-to-face programming of each institution."
A system spokesperson did not respond to questions Education Dive emailed on Tuesday, which included whether the arrangement could cause job losses.
Experts told Education Dive in July that integrating PASSHE universities could lead to the system scaling back academic offerings, likely resulting in faculty cuts. Layoffs, however, would likely face pushback from a powerful union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
Union President Jamie Martin said in an emailed statement that the group was surprised by the announcement as it has not yet seen the system redesign's financial analysis, which was ongoing this summer. "The plans moving forward should involve faculty," Martin added.