What factors should college administrators consider with consolidations?

Dive Brief:

  • State demographic shifts that change the demand for certain higher education programs are often why public colleges consider mergers, according to new research from Ithaka S+R.
  • Local and state politics also heavily influence consolidations, the research and consulting group found. Its new work delves into mergers in Wisconsin, Texas and Georgia, with separate case studies on mergers in each state.
  • College administrators should plan for how mergers affect racial, ethnic and socioeconomic minorities on campus — populations often not central in these arrangements, the report’s authors argue.

Dive Insight:

American higher education has undergone a period of significant consolidation in the last decade, according to the report released Monday. Recent merger proposals come from Vermont, where the Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees voted this year to unify its three residential colleges, and New Hampshire, where the governor attempted to combine the state’s two- and four-year systems until lawmakers intervened.

These discussions have also taken on new relevance amid the pandemic’s economic turmoil.

Some of the most visible mergers occurred in Georgia and Wisconsin, which along with Texas were the primary focus of the Ithaka S+R research.

The University System of Georgia reduced the number of institutions under its umbrella from 35 to 26 between 2013 and 2018. Officials were attempting to find cost efficiencies, reduce duplication in programs and boost attainment levels.

In 2018, the University of Wisconsin System carried out a major restructuring of its institutions largely centered around its four-year universities absorbing its 13 two-year schools.

And the University of Texas System in 2012 began the process of merging the University of Texas Brownsville and the University of Texas Pan American into a new institution, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The system billed the move as a way to save Brownsville, which had lost a partnership with a two-year school that provided it with resources and transfer students.

The report’s authors stress that the circumstances were unique in each merger, but some common themes emerged.

In Georgia and Wisconsin, population changes left some rural institutions with fewer potential students than in past years, a trend that was not expected to improve. And especially among Wisconsin’s two-year schools, declining state investment and enrollment challenges limited the programs they could offer.

The situation was nearly inverse in Texas, the report authors note. The area where the two combined colleges were located was long underserved, which the report attributes to “a legacy of de jure and de facto discrimination against people of Mexican ancestry in the state and the region.” Merging the colleges unlocked new capital and capacity for an area with growing demand, the report states.

But politics can complicate these deals. An alternative to merging the Wisconsin two-year colleges was closing some of the most severely under-enrolled campuses. But this option was set aside to appease Republican lawmakers who controlled state government and often represented the small towns where the two-year schools were located, according to the research.

College officials can make mergers more palatable when they emphasize them as opportunities for growth rather than cutbacks. Regents in Georgia homed in on how the consolidations could improve student services, the array of programs and economic development “with efficiency only as a means to those ends.”

The authors call for administrators to account for equity concerns when mapping out mergers. When these deals happen, it is often difficult to track data on how disadvantaged students are affected. But without doing so, “gains or setbacks may go under the radar” for these students.

In Georgia, for example, one of the colleges that merged was Southern Polytechnic State University, which historically was a prominent place for Black students to pursue bachelor’s degrees in engineering fields. But concerns arose that if it joined with Kennesaw State University, it would lose the “cultural environment that nurtured a robust African American student body.”

Officials should consider not just current and prospective students in mergers but also faculty, staff, alumni and community members, the report states.

“Higher education institutions are the sites of many personal and economic connections, and all of the people involved in those relationships will be affected,” it says.

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