This week’s stories of higher education in trouble: merger, consolidation, and beer

Recently an interviewer asked me why I referred to a higher education crisis or bubble.  I had many answers, including “the book should be out this fall.”  Other answers included stories of colleges and universities in trouble.

Today I’d like to share a few of those stories.  They involve a merger, the intersection of beer and student loans, and consolidation.

ITEM: Hampshire College is now looking for a “strategic partner.”  This sounds a lot like a call for a merger.  A college FAQ makes the call really sound like a merger:

Ideally we’ll identify a long-term strategic partner by the end of this semester. That will allow us to have a full year to work with our community and prospective partner on a transition plan. We would progress into the “new Hampshire College entity” in July 2020, following our 50th anniversary celebration.

“A new entity” means something more than adding “a new and generous funder.”

The official statement does several things.  First, it trumpets the many virtues of Hampshire, which is obviously aimed at making it more attractive to a would-be partner.  Second, it asserts the institution’s financial need, with well chosen phrases like: “as an under-endowed institution… establishing financial sustainability…”

Hampshire College library

The Hampshire College library.

Third, the president takes care to situate Hampshire’s unique situation in a broader, national context:

How do we build a long-term, stable financial platform given the challenges faced by so many small liberal arts colleges?

…some of the tough financial trends facing institutions similar in size to Hampshire have materialized with announcements of colleges closing their doors. There are bruising financial and demographic realities in play, and we’re not immune to them.

There is more from the FAQ linked from that statement:

How is today different from other times that Hampshire has had financial hardships? Small colleges face stiff headwinds today, and the pressures on campuses with limited endowments are enormous. There is intense competition from peers around financial aid awards, as well as demographic trends showing steep declines in the college-age population…

i.e., some of the trends we’ve been discussing on this blog for years.

How urgent is Hampshire’s need?  On the one hand, some of the signals suggest a very immediate crisis.  Let me draw out one passage from president Nelson’s official statement:

As we embark on this process we’re also carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class this fall, and will work with the trustees to make that decision before the February 1 admissions notification date. [emphases added]

They are considering whether or not to enroll a new class this fall.  Think about that.

At the same time, president Nelson states that their budget is balanced and their (tiny) endowment is performing well. Nelson also suggests this is not a hurried process:

By moving ahead so forthrightly now, we also have perhaps the most important resource of all—time. We have the time to undertake the awesome, exhilarating responsibility of evolving education at Hampshire.

(The word “time” appears three times in that paragraph.) So is this a medium- to long-term strategy, or is it one with immediate impact?

Who might be such a partner?  Perhaps a major and wealthy university, of which there are more than a few in New England.

Left unspoken in the official statements is the role of Hampshire’s four nearby partners in the Five Colleges Consortium.  The group are geographically close, reputationally excellent, and have many institutional connections.  Several – Smith, Amherst – are wealthy, with endowments over $2 billion each.  Yet one of those partners, Smith College, officially stated that they only learned about the merger call last week; Mt. Holyoke’s president just issued a similar text.  I have no other information about how the other Four Colleges could assist their Fifth.  Were there negotiations among the Five that didn’t get anywhere, so Hampshire is reaching out to the broader world?  Or is Hampshire College treating its consortium as part of the larger conversation?

(An interesting coincidence: as I was writing this post, the Chronicle emailed me about their upcoming webinar on “Making a College Collaboration or Merger Work“)

ITEM: a beer company has launched a multi-million-dollar contest to help students with college loans.  Natural Light gave students one million dollars last year.  They are now starting a ten year project, offering another million for each year to come.

Natural Beer tweet

Naturally this is great PR, complete with a hashtag for Natty stories.  It works because of a continued, generalized, cultural sense of dread about student loan debt.

It may also be a faint signal for continued privatization of formerly, often public services.  Compare to Domino Pizza’s street-paving stunt last year.

ITEM: Michigan’s Baker College is closing several branch campuses and consolidating them into one site, apparently in Ferndale.  The city of Allen Park is already trying to buy some land from their outgoing Baker instance.

Cost savings is the reason given:

“By consolidating Flint with Owosso, and the metro Detroit campuses into a proposed central location, we will be able to combine resources and student bodies resulting in a more focused, streamlined enterprise for the next century.”

Three different stories.  Three different snapshots of the broader American higher education crisis.

(thanks to Claudia W. Scholz, Peter Shea, and Ellen Nuffer for links; Hampshire College library photo by Adam Rice)

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4 Responses to This week’s stories of higher education in trouble: merger, consolidation, and beer

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Great article and more evidence of the subprime college crash and US College Meltdown. Expect many more campus closings in 2019.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Hope you will include the different student debt groups in your new book. This includes Student Loan Justice, the Debt Collective, I Am Ai, ITT Tech Warriors, Strike Debt, etc.

  3. Alan Levine says:

    Like the naming of professional sporting facilities, will institutions take on corporate sponsor/naming? Will it be Natty Hampshire College? Amazon Domino’s Baker College?


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