Another academic merger; another college exits Vermont

Another higher education merger just hit the news.  Marlboro College (in southern Vermont) will merge with Emerson College (of Boston, Mass.) over the next eight months.

This is a fresh story, so my post is a hot take based only on initial signals and my previous analysis of Marlboro.  But I’ll try to draw out some salient elements.

The gist: it seems like Marlboro will transfer “the school’s endowment and real estate holdings in southern Vermont over to Emerson College.”  Those are worth about $40 million US (“roughly $30 million endowment and $10 million in land and buildings”).  Marlboro will shut down operations at the end of spring term 2020.   After that point students who were taking classes at Marlboro will transfer to Emerson, taking classes in:

Emerson’s Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies program, where Marlboro students will be enrolled and tenured and tenure-track Marlboro faculty will teach. The program will be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

It looks like only Marlboro’s tenure-track faculty will move to Emerson.  According to a local paper, “[a]dministrative and support staff are not part of the proposed alliance…”  They will just lose their jobs:

“A proposal was made but it turned out to not be credible,” [Marlboro’s president] said.

“Trustees will be collaborating with the administration to develop severance packages that demonstrate the College’s gratitude,” wrote Quigley and Marlboro College Board Chairman Richard Saudek in a letter published on the college’s website.

Readers may recall I’ve written about Marlboro before.  It attempted a merger with Bridgeport University (Connecticut) this past summer. That fell apart in September.

What does this story mean for higher education’s future?

Caveat: this is just one (1) small datapoint, and Marlboro represents a very narrow stand of American higher education (very small, private, liberal arts).

First, identity remains crucial in this process, as in every academic merger.  Listen to Marlboro’s president:

“It preserves our identity through renaming Emerson’s Institute as the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, continues our pedagogy and commitment to progressive education by bringing our faculty to the Emerson campus, and provides extraordinary educational opportunities for our students with an alliance partner where there is a clear alignment of values, culture and purpose.”

Second, it’s still early days in the story. Both colleges’ trustees have to approve the process.  So, as with Bridgeport, the thing could still fall apart.  (Interestingly, the merger news doesn’t appear anywhere on Emerson’s front page as of this afternoon.  Contrast that with Marlboro’s:

Marlboro front page-Emerson

Emerson Emerson Emerson Emerson Emerson Emerson

)

Moreover, it’s not clear that “merger” is the right word. Emerson College’s official announcement page and video doesn’t use the merger word at all, preferring instead to speak of “an extraordinary alliance.”  An Emerson press release also scrupulously avoids using the m-word.  Marlboro’s announcement only mentions m_rg_r once, referring otherwise to a partner/partnership (four times) and alliance (2x).

Other terms might be better.  We could think of Emerson as a white knight, saving (some of) a struggling college.   An Inside Higher Ed commentator described the plan as Marlboro is “being gifted” to Emerson.  Otherwise, given the huge disparity in relative sizes – Emerson has 4,446, or whom 3,813 are undergraduates, while Marlboro enrolls only 150 – perhaps a better term appears in the business world’s language: acquisition.

Third, did you catch the $10 million in land and buildings?  Remember that real estate plays a key role in mergers.  For struggling campuses, that might be one of the leading benefits they can bring to negotiations.  Think of it this way: every academic merger story is ultimately a real estate deal.

Fourth, some will see this as another negative mark against the future of liberal arts campuses.  Alternatively, it’s another blow for the very small, very rural American college.  Note the way Marlboro explains their actions:

The challenges facing small liberal arts colleges are acute and will only intensify in the coming yearsUnfortunately, Marlboro’s ongoing budget deficits are only a preview of the difficulties ahead, as the number of students in the region declines precipitously over the next decade.

i.e., familiar stuff for my readers.  But Marlboro’s statement immediately continues with a specific point about how these trends pressed hard upon them:

It has been sobering to watch a number of our neighboring schools make excruciating decisions to close in the face of these insurmountable challenges, something that our accreditors have watched with alarm. The accreditors have shown concern with Marlboro’s own sustainability since 2015, and their oversight has increased dramatically as our neighbors have closed.

See that?  Don’t forget the vital role that accreditors play in higher ed.

Fifth, this is bad news for Vermont.  Already three campuses have closed in just the past year (Southern Vermont College, the College of St. Joseph, and Green Mountain College), while Vermont Law detenured most its faculty members.  Losing a fourth college is not a good sign for the state’s viability.  Indeed, looking ahead, Michael Horn offered this glum take:

(That would be Middlebury College.)

Ellen Nuffer reminds us of the social, economic, reputational, and human cost to Vermont:

Overall, I can’t shake my sense that American higher ed is overbuilt, and that we are now scrambling to redesign the sector to make sense of a different world.  Closures, mergers, and whatever the Marlboro-Emerson story is are key steps along that path.

More as I get it.  Do any of you have insights into this story, or thoughts about mergers in general?

(thanks to Jenny Darrow)

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12 Responses to Another academic merger; another college exits Vermont

  1. Re: “Overall, I can’t shake my sense that American higher ed is overbuilt, and that we are now scrambling to redesign the sector to make sense of a different world.”

    This is the critical answer to the exact question that I was going to ask you.

    If I was brave enough to ask a follow-up question, it would be something like “To what degree (no pun intended) is American higher ed overbuilt and what will the likely consequences be, particularly in terms of financial viability of the different types of schools over the next three to ten years?”

    Fortunately, I’m not that brave.

    • mkt42 says:

      I wish I had bookmarked this when I read it: some commenter or pundit made an offhand comment that the dividing line is a $500M endowment. Private schools that are above that line will survive, those that are below will have troubles.

      It was clearly a seat-of-the-pants estimate, not a serious research result. But it does represent one observer’s estimate of what variable(s) to look at, and what is the critical level of that variable.

      Personally I’m a little more optimistic than that, I think the critical survival benchmark could be substantially lower than $500M. But it’s not a bad starting point for analysis.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        That’s an interesting rule of thumb, mkt42. May I share it?

        • mkt42 says:

          Sure, with the caveat that it was some anonymous commenter on the internet (but I’m pretty sure that whoever made it is an experienced observer of higher education) just making an off-the-cuff remark.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I think we’re exploring those consequences now.

      A few strategies are in play:

      A) Go after out of state students (but competition is fierce).
      B) ” ” international students (harder to do now) .
      C) Close.
      D) Merge.
      E) Expand online.
      F) Reinvent curriculum.

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      US higher education is no more overbuilt than healthcare, finance, or the military. But when we live in a world that is anti-intellectual, higher ed, especially for the working class, is in peril.

      • Keil Dumsch says:

        It doesn’t have anything to do with anti-intellectualism. One can value higher ed and still conclude that there are too many colleges. Any impartial observer, looking deeply and carefully at the issue, especially the historical roots will conclude that we built too many colleges and let them get too big. It doesn’t follow any kind of logic from the demand side. HL Mencken and John D. Rockefeller were pointing out the excess capacity issue 100 years ago, and Jeffrey Selingo does today.

  2. Ken Soto says:

    This doesn’t seem any different than the Bridgeport “acquisition” they attempted earlier, maybe they realized nothing better would come along. Yes Bryan, as you’ve been saying for some time, higher ed is overbuilt and this will happen much more over the coming years.

    But I also wonder: when was a college with 150 students ever sustainable? Marlboro was once larger but not by much.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good comparison, Ken.

      And good question. Americans love the small school and always have done. As I’ve been speculating, perhaps that era is drawing to a close, or at least shifting to one with fewer such.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, we are entering new territory in the College Meltdown. Nine consecutive years of enrollment losses, and counting. More than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt–much of which is unrecoverable. Working people making big sacrifices in their life decisions because of the debt. A growing educated underclass (Gary Roth). And the continued decline of labor in higher education, with adjuncts as “the new faculty majority.” We are only six years away from the enrollment cliff (Nathan Grawe). While the coming economic downturn may or may not raise enrollment temporarily, it could create another cliff two decades from now.

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