Why Colleges are Merging More Than Ever

Since before the United States declared independence, colleges and universities have been an important part of the nation’s history. As the country’s population, geographic area, and access to education expanded, so too did its number of colleges. Now in the 21st century, the US has thousands of degree-granting institutions that serve students after high school. Now the trend that has led the country to this moment has reversed; in 2022, 1.4 million fewer students are attending college than there were in 2020. In the past 4 years, 95 college mergers have taken place. Many merged to avoid going out of business, a threat looming over hundreds of institutions. 

Why has enrollment fallen so dramatically? The pandemic tells part of the story. In 2020, lockdowns forced universities to provide online learning for students. This transition was sudden and led to losses in both life experience and learning outcomes for students. At the same time, the recession caused by the pandemic made college unaffordable for even more Americans. Up to 40% of prospective students have delayed their college plans due to either financial strain or a desire for in-person education. 

Yet the pandemic doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is that attitudes towards higher education have been shifting for years. The rampant debt and unaffordability of college combined with the vast number of college graduates in the workplace has led many to reevaluate the value of a bachelor’s degree. In 2013, 70% of US adults said a college degree was “very important” to success. By 2019, that number had fallen to 51%. While it’s still generally true that those with college degrees make more than high school graduates, exceptions are becoming more common. In the new decade, 10% of Americans with low wage positions shifted to high-skill jobs, and many did so without a college degree. Instead, they got certified in specific skills online. Such certifications were cheaper and faster to get than a degree, and they offered workers the same result.

For colleges to serve a smaller pool of students, they need to change their ways. Those unable to adapt to the times will shut down permanently. Mergers are one way to streamline operations and reduce competition for students. Proposed mergers typically have to be approved by each institution’s board of trustees as well as the college’s accrediting bodies. Outside the formal approval process, business partnerships, faculty support, and alumni/foundation networks have a strong influence on the outcome of a potential merger. Without the support of all these groups, mergers aren’t likely to succeed in their goal of keeping both campuses running. 

Not all colleges are equally likely to seek mergers. The most common mergers happen between schools who each have less than 5,000 students. Private, non-profit schools are the most likely to merge, usually with a school of the same type in the same state. This is because smaller, less prestigious private schools have tight margins and are seeing higher than average declines in student enrollment.

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