Pennsylvania Capitol

The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is bracing for further enrollment declines, Chancellor Daniel Greenstein told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Greenstein, in testimony before the House Appropriations and Education committees, said enrollment at the state’s 14 universities will be “challenged” in the upcoming academic year.

He attributed the likely enrollment drop to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than the system’s recent move to consolidate six of its universities into two.

PASSHE’s board of governors in July approved the plan to combine California, Clarion and Edinboro universities into one university and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities into another. Under the consolidation plan, each campus is to retain its historic name, mascots and sports teams.

The system’s aim is for the consolidations to be completed in time for the start of school in 2022.

“It doesn’t seem to have a pattern to suggest anything else” than that the pandemic is the cause of the drop, Greenstein said, adding that he’d guess the students most directly impacted would be low-income students and students of color. University data suggests that the enrollment drop may also be driven by students dropping out and not returning to campus, he added.

A PASSHE spokesman, when contacted about Greenstein’s comments, said that enrollment figures won’t be finalized until after the school year begins.

Last year, there were 93,704 students enrolled at PASSHE’s universities. That was a 2% drop from the prior year, when the universities enrolled 95,782 students. The system has been enduring a long string of enrollment declines since enrollment peaked in 2010-11 at 119,513, state system data shows.

State Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, asked Greenstein what sort of contingency plans the state system has in the works if its accrediting body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, objects to the consolidation or if NCAA determines that the consolidated universities can’t continue to offer separate sports programs.

“The NCAA may not allow these universities to maintain their individual identities, and you can’t predict it, but I’m wondering if you have a plan for an alternative,” she asked.

“I don’t have plans for a hypothetical,” Greenstein said, but added that there’s no reason to believe that the outside groups would take action to undermine the consolidation plan: “Their job is not to trip up higher education and do things that are bad for students. Their job is to protect higher education and its delivery of services.”

Most of the sports teams at PASSHE universities compete at the Division II level, though a handful of programs compete at the Division I level. Previously, PASSHE officials have downplayed the potential of NCAA action in response to the consolidation, noting that Penn State’s and Pitt’s branch campuses have sports programs outside of the programs offered by the main campuses.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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