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The merger of six institutions into two was a controversial decision. Photo credit: Pexels.

Overall enrollment is down after Pennsylvania system merger

On a positive side, first-year students' numbers are up.

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Last year, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted to consolidate two sets of institutions: California, Clarion and Edinboro universities merged to create Pennsylvania Western University (PennWest); and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities became Commonwealth University. 

The mergers, which became official in July of this year, were expected to help attract a contingent of untapped students, including new adult learners. 

For more than a decade, enrollment has been falling in Pennsylvania's network of state-owned universities. According to Higher Ed Dive, even though expectations were for it to go up after the merger, numbers keep going down: the PASSHE’s enrollment slid by about 4.6%, from almost 88,700 students last year to about 84,600 in Fall 2022. 

While Commonwealth’s enrollment dropped about 3%, the biggest enrollment drop this Fall occurred at one of the two new consolidated institutions, PennWest. It experienced a nearly 12% student decline, in comparison to the three universities that were merged to form it.

Among the 10 PASSHE universities, only Cheyney and East Stroudsburg grew enrollment — but East Stroudsburg presented a small 0.3% increase. Cheyney, the nation’s oldest historically Black institution that at one point was on the brink of shutting down, had a nearly 10% increase. 

According to the system spokesperson Cody Jones, important factors contributed to the changes in enrollment leves, such as Pennsylvania population decline and reduced number of high school graduates. These and other trends together have caused a decrease of about 25% of students in the past decade.  

The coronavirus pandemic also compounded the system’s troubles, and it continues to batter the sector as a whole. National undergraduate student enrollment dropped almost 5% from spring 2021 to spring 2022, according to a May report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Among the positive findings this Fall, PASSHE wide enrollment of first-year students jumped by 7%, having 15,649 in Fall 2022 versus 14,631 the previous year. 

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