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When Colleges Merge, It’s Join Or Die

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95 college mergers have taken place in the last 4 years. That’s 21% more mergers than the previous 18 years. For many colleges, it’s the only way to keep serving students. Yet just like in any business, college mergers can raise concerns about the unique voice, identity, and support of the campuses being subsumed.

Why Colleges Are Merging

Why are colleges resorting to these measures? The pandemic is part of the story. COVID-19 lockdowns forced most campuses to shut their doors and transition suddenly to online learning, a move that has not been fully reversed 2 years later.

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While the US government invested $76 billion into keeping colleges afloat, some still went out of business. In the near future, as many as 500 4-year institutions are at risk of closure.

Lockdowns and financial woes pushed students out of college, but enrollment was still declining without the pandemic. In 2019, 51% of US adults considered a college degree “very important,” down from 70% in 2013.

College costs have consistently risen faster than incomes, and people are finding ways into highly-skilled jobs without a college degree. Those who were able to avoid college took advantage of online certifications courses, which tend to be more affordable.

After students, the next problem pressuring colleges to close is hiring. In a now-familiar pandemic story, the university faculty and staff who got furloughed during the lockdowns either found another position or retired early. When colleges opened their doors again, they had a shortage of workers. Inadequate staffing puts colleges at risk of noncompliance with federal and state rules.

It should be noted that not every college is in equal need of a merger to stay afloat. Most merger deals involve schools with less than 5,000 students, and 40% of mergers took place between private, non-profit schools. This is because smaller, less prestigious private schools are seeing higher than average declines in enrollment. Many of these schools are also Christian-affiliated.

Mergers are most likely to happen between schools located near one another. For example, Delaware State University announced plans to acquire neighboring Wesley College last year. In 2022, Connecticut’s community colleges made plans to merge into a single college with a dozen campuses, taking advantage of a common administrative regime.

While Northeastern University’s acquisition of Mills College in California sparked headlines due to Mills alumni filing a lawsuit to stop it, cross country mergers are rare in the higher education field.