St. Joe's Hawk Hill campus. The Jesuit university just completed one merger and is in the midst of another. (Google Street View)

The Philly area is home to some of the nation’s biggest and richest universities, but also well known for its panoply of smaller, specialized schools. The latter are increasingly being swallowed up by the former in a notable spate of higher education mergers. 

At least seven different schools in the region have announced or consummated mergers in the past six years. From the perspective of administrators, this makes sense.

It’s been a rough time for smaller universities or colleges, which are buffeted by declining enrollment, lower alumni donations, and dwindling endowments. As they lose the ability to dedicate resources to developing new programs and courses, mergers appear more and more tempting, said Robert Zemsky, a UPenn professor focused on education reform and higher ed market analysis. 

“What you’re seeing is the result of an industry that is not particularly good at strategy, and is not particularly good at admitting it’s in trouble,” Zemsky told Billy Penn. 

He sees four kinds of combinations currently reshaping the higher education landscape, from most common to least:

  • Asset-centric mergers, where bigger institutions obtain valuable property by combining with struggling smaller schools.
  • Combining mergers between institutions that have relatively equal footing, and decide to combine to collectively have a wider reach instead of splitting the market. 
  • Mission-driven mergers, when universities see alignment in their missions — for instance, religious educational institutions joining forces. 
  • Building-focused mergers, when online universities are in search of a physical home: “Last I looked, University of Phoenix was looking for a home in Idaho, of all places,” Zemsky said.

Good for a university’s financial health doesn’t always mean easy for students or professors. It’s something Edward Foote, Dean of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy at Saint Joseph’s University, has dealt with a lot recently after the University of the Sciences merged with St. Joe’s last summer. 

Several students were upset and angry about the plan to yank birth control from USciences health centers after merging with the Catholic university.

“When students are struggling … they come to me oftentimes,” Foote told Billy Penn. “I’m a little biased, but I think the communication that was sent to faculty, staff and students was as best as we could have done under the circumstances.”

Foote, who worked at USciences pre-merger, said he and his colleagues were aware of the struggles the school was facing to remain sustainable amid declining enrollment, which started before the pandemic.

“I’ve gotten all kinds of feedback,” Foote said; some students and alumni even called the match an ideal choice. The cohort of students who just graduated were most upset, in his view, and understandably so. “Their whole life was at USciences,” he said. “Then the last year they’re told, ‘Well, you’re getting an SJU diploma.’ ”

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Diploma details are also a point of concern at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences, which is set to follow in USciences footsteps and merge into St. Joe’s in January 2024

Wendell Esbenshade, PA College’s director of marketing and communications, oversees several private social media groups for students to seek and share information, where he said one question cropped up consistently: “Whose name will be on my diploma when I graduate?”

But real distress hasn’t surfaced, at least not in those forums. “I’ve kind of been surprised that there really hasn’t been as much of a reaction as I think a lot of us would have anticipated,” Esbenshade told Billy Penn. 

William Rhinier, PA College’s dean of student affairs, said he mostly fields questions from students about whether certifications, credentialing, and programming are changing. Once they know the academic offerings and Lancaster County campus aren’t changing, he said concerns are generally assuaged.

Foote, the former USciences dean now at St. Joe’s, called the mergers a great alternative to simply going out of business. “People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, another merger,’ but we had to get bigger. Because small universities — unless they’re really rich — they’re not going to survive.”

Here’s a recap of some of the recent higher education mergers in the Philadelphia region, and the potential reasons behind them. 

Drexel and Salus link up

Drexel University and Salus University — the Elkins Park school formerly known as Pennsylvania State College of Optometry — last month announced their intention to integrate offerings. 

The schools are very different in size. Salus has around 1,150 students, while Drexel has more than 22,000

Drexel described the move as a way to bolster its health sciences graduate education, adding Salus specialties such as “optometry, audiology, speech-language pathology,” and more. On the Salus side, the move was made to expand research and clinical offerings, with the added bonus of taking part in Drexel’s co-op work program. 

Villanova buys struggling Cabrini’s campus

In the last few months, Cabrini University’s interest in and efforts to be part of a merger were made clear to the industry, but the clock ran out on the financially challenged small Catholic school in Radnor Township. 

Villanova University stepped in to acquire the shuttering university’s property, though not the students or professors. Several surrounding Catholic colleges, however, have offered students a warm welcome — and in some cases,  incentives like accepting all credits and financial aid packages.  

Cabrini had around 1,600 students in total; Villanova has more than four times that number in undergraduate programs alone, plus 3,100 grad students. 

St. Joe’s Hawks circle in on healthcare

As noted above, Saint Joseph’s University has doubled up on mergers in recent years, having integrated West Philly’s University of the Sciences and now planning to add Lancaster County’s.

St. Joe’s interest in both instances seems to be offering better medical education to prepare students for roles across the health care landscape. 

These mergers are slightly more balanced as far as relative size goes. There were about 5,000 SJU students pre-merger, and 2,500 at USciences, while PA College has nearly 2,000 enrolled.

Six state schools merge in a period of shrinking appropriations

Roughly two years ago the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors voted to merge six state colleges into two universities, citing the same challenges of enrollment and funding that undergird national trends. 

State contributions to public university budgets have been on a steady decline nationwide. In 2000, about $10,623 was appropriated per U.S. public higher ed student; in 2022 that figure sat at $6,101, according to data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. 

Recently, a measure to send money to four state-related universities in Pennsylvania to fund in-state tuition discounts failed to move out of the Pa. General Assembly. 

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...