Colleges team up to protect themselves

It’s a familiar story, by now.  A campus faces declining enrollment and reductions in state support.  What’s different is its strategic response: to expand collaboration with nearby peers in order to survive.

Vermont State Colleges That’s what’s happening with Vermont’s public colleges.  There are five campuses in the Vermont State Colleges system: Castleton State College, Community College of Vermont, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, and Vermont Technical College.  The state has seen its K-12 population dwindle for years (“[e]nrollment in the VSC system… has dropped from 13,494 in the fall of 2010 to 12,305 in the fall of 2014”), and Montpelier hasn’t been interesting in maintaining or expanding its support.  So now they’re partnering up to, well, survive.

This team-up seems to be in early, brainstorming days so far.  You can read some interesting ideas in the article, like more closely linking the community college to the bachelor’s-granting colleges, and learning from more tightly knit state systems, like those in Pennsylvania and California.

One of the biggest obstacles to inter-institutional collaboration in higher education is that these campuses see themselves primarily as competitors with each other.  At best they can become frenemies.  So I was struck by this observation:

“You could have all five of the colleges continue to compete at a certain level, but I’m not convinced that all of them would continue to be sustainable for the next decade,” [Lyndon State College President Joe] Bertolino said.

Competition could destroy the competitors.  Quite a thing for an institution’s leader to assert in public.

But such are our times, when queen sacrifices are in play on many tables, states look to cut even more, and we reach for technological solutions that might not pan out.  It’s good to see Vermont exploring another strategy.

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7 Responses to Colleges team up to protect themselves

  1. One way we can determine if a service is fairly priced is competition; we know if one provider’s price is too high or its value is too low is that we know others are ready to offer that service and take that business if they can beat that provider on cost or value. Attempts to shield higher education from competition are certainly attractive to higher education institutions, but is it in the long term best interest of students and/or society? It certainly might be in some cases. But it bears further analysis. If five private corporations selling a service decided that competition among them would force one or more of them out of business, and they agreed to not compete in order that all five to survive, some might think the consumers wouldn’t be getting a good deal; in this case would we accuse the corporations of collusion and price fixing?

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    • There was a famous case of higher education price-fixing back in the 1970s. That helped scare many institutions from collaborating too closely.

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      • Interesting; I hadn’t remembered that. Thank goodness for Google; first up in a search was a case from 1991 where the Ivy Leagues were accused of agreeing to package financial aid collaboratively to prevent bidding on students. The Justice Department’s consent decree said in part: “Students and their families are entitled to the full benefits of price competition when they choose a college. This collegiate cartel denied them the right to compare prices and discounts among schools, just as they would in shopping for any other service. The defendants conspired to eliminate cost competition as a factor in choosing a college. The choice of whether to consider price when picking a school belongs to parents and students, not the college or university.” Life’s a learning experience. I guess mergers is still an option, unless the DoJ objects on an anti-trust basis. The advantage of mergers over cartels from a consumer perspective is that you might reduce operating cost by consolidating back office functions. The disadvantage of mergers from a faculty perspective is that you might reduce operating cost by consolidating academic functions.

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      • It’s a story presidents know, and few others. “collegiate cartel” indeed.

        Good point about anti-trust. But with 4500 or so institutions, several should be able to merge without DoJ objecting.

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  2. Darn it, meant to cancel this and start over, too many typos. Sorry!

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  3. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2016: education contexts | Bryan Alexander

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