A college student unpacks his suitcase. (Photo courtesy of Metro Creative Graphics)

HARRISBURG  — The board of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted Wednesday to advance a plan to merge six of its 14 universities into two new institutions, as the system struggles with sinking enrollment and stagnant state aid.

The nearly unanimous vote from the board of governors launches a 60-day public comment period. A final vote could be scheduled for July, with implementation in time for the 2022-23 school year.

“This is not approving plans as is," board chair Cindy Shapiro said at the close of the two-hour online meeting. "This is saying, 'We are at a point where we can continue to move forward, not go back to the drawing board, unless somehow out of public comment that appears to be the best solution.'”

Under the consolidation plans, Bloomsburg, Mansfield and Lock Haven universities in northern Pennsylvania would merge into one institution and California, Clarion and Edinboro in western Pennsylvania would merge to become another.

All six campuses would remain open, with integrated faculty, curriculum and enrollment strategies, as well as administration efforts to ensure each of the six campuses to retain its sports teams.

A goal of the plan is to reduce the cost of a degree for students by 25% through things like faster degree attainment, high school dual enrollments, cost savings, stronger fundraising and grant funding and more federal work study opportunities.

The move is perhaps the most dramatic change to the nearly four-decade old system that is being buffeted by the drop in college-age Americans that is hitting every higher education system in the United States.

Enrollment has fallen more than 20% since 2010 to below 100,000, driven by steep declines of students from families whose annual incomes are below $110,000, according to the system.

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