Middle States accreditor greenlights 3 Pennsylvania mergers

Dive Brief:

  • Regional accreditor the Middle States Commission on Higher Education signed off on three ongoing college mergers in Pennsylvania, it announced this week.
  • Middle States, at a private meeting last week, approved the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s efforts to combine six of its institutions into two. The public system pursued consolidation to correct shaky finances resulting from a decade-long drop in enrollment. 
  • The accreditor also greenlit Saint Joseph’s University’s acquisition of the University of the Sciences, the U.S.’s first pharmacy college. The Philadelphia-based Jesuit institution said absorbing the nearby USciences will help expand its healthcare programs. 

Dive Insight:

College mergers have arisen nationwide at public and private nonprofit institutions, driven by such factors as weak state appropriations and falling enrollment. The latter is a particular problem in Pennsylvania, and these declines are expected to worsen in the saturated state higher ed market. 

Consolidation presents an option to strengthen institutions, but these deals must clear complex state and federal regulatory hurdles. Accreditor approval represents a key step.

Accreditor authorization means institutions can access Title IV federal financial aid, which is crucial to most colleges balancing their budgets. The accreditation system also attempts to provide a check on colleges’ financial health and academic programs.

Middle States’ actions provide degree-granting authority to the two new institutions born from the Pennsylvania system’s merger plan.

Lock Haven, Mansfield and Bloomsburg universities in the northeast joined to become Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania, while Clarion, Edinboro and California universities in the west united as Pennsylvania Western University. 

With Middle States’ blessing, accreditation becomes official July 1. The PASSHE board unanimously approved the mergers in July 2021. 

The newly formed universities will each have one president, slate of faculty and array of academic programming. But each of the six campuses is retaining its branding, from mascot to school colors. System officials also are attempting to preserve athletics teams on each campus, which hinges on NCAA approval. 

An NCAA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The mergers were part of the vision of system Chancellor Dan Greenstein, who battled an avalanche of criticism to push them forward. Critics had argued the system moved too quickly and had pigeonholed universities together without accounting for their geographic distance and missions. 

But Greenstein maintained the mergers were the sole remedy for tumbling enrollment, which observers largely blamed on lackluster state investment. 

“The commission’s decision is another positive step toward building a powerhouse institution that will provide more opportunities for students than any of the universities could on its own,” Greenstein said in a statement after Middle States’ announcement.

The accreditor also allowed St. Joseph’s University to continue its takeover of USciences, known formerly as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Sciences. The two Philadelphia institutions approved the deal last June, and accreditation is effective for the combined university on June 1. 

The two institutions announced in February 2021 they would explore a merger. USciences, which has suffered financially, approached St. Joseph’s, which had eyed expansion of healthcare programs

Combined, the universities will enroll more than 9,000 undergraduate and graduate students. St. Joseph’s will keep its name and hold onto the USciences campus, which is about five miles away from its own. 

The deal necessitated employee cuts, with 22 of the 170 full-time USciences faculty not being offered jobs, and five others only being offered one-year contracts, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

St. Joseph’s President Mark Reed will lead the merged institution. Paul Katz, former USciencies president, retired last year.

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