How to merge a college with a university

Two more American campuses announced a mergerMarlboro College in Vermont will merge with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

For years I’ve been tracking ideas and practices around academic mergers, closures, cuts, and queen sacrifices, as responses to the growing pressures exerted upon American higher education.  This story offers another useful example.

Here I’ll explore the reasons for the merger, along with how it might play out and what this means for education’s future.

Why merge?

To begin with, Marlboro is not doing well.  They state as much in their announcement, reporting that they face “significant revenue challenges resulting from a rapid and accelerating decline in the number of college-aged students in New England and beyond.”  (Familiar themes for my readers.)  According to CTPost, the college’s “enrollment had dropped 34 percent since 2010 and its tuition revenue by 50 percent.”  It ran a deficit last yearAccording to Marlboro’s last president,

“To our sorrow, we don’t have enough students. And those that come, we discount their tuition too much, so our financial models – they just aren’t sustainable,” said Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley.

Marlboro’s reputation may have also been hit by data like this, published by USA Today:

Median graduate earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $27,600

Avg. annual cost of attendance: $40,840

In fact, Marlboro has been seeking a partner for a while.  According to their official announcement,

In our search for a complementary institution, we sent out a Request for Partnership Vision to more than 70 colleges and universities and have had dozens of conversations with potential partners over the last several months.

In contrast, Bridgeport is doing much better.  However, it did experience a serious decline in international students. Marlboro’s students could help address that shortfall.  Otherwise, I’m not sure of the net benefits UB wins through this deal, unless they have a plan to really connect their population with Marlboro at scale.

There are some similarities between the institutions.  Both are private.  They are both in New England, about two hours apart.  Their endowments are nearly identical: $37.6 million for Marlboro, $34.1 million for UB. (Thanks to Emily Alling for raising this point)

How will this merger play out?

Formally, one name change will happen: “The University of Bridgeport will keep its name. Marlboro College will be become the Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Bridgeport.”  That suggests UB absorbed Marlboro, rather than it being a marriage of equals.

Administratively,

[President Laura Skandera] Trombley said the merged university would maintain one Board of Trustees and that similar sized endowments at both institutions — about $35 million each — would be combined. Trombley also said she would become the president of both institutions.

There will be some curricular exchanges:

Marlboro College students would have the ability to complete advanced degrees at the University of Bridgeport.

UB this fall is also restarting a performing arts major and Trombley said Marlboro will play a big part in that. The Marlboro College campus annually hosts the Marlboro Music Festival…

Plans are also under consideration to have combined classes and other learning opportunities between the two campuses, such as a first-year seminar for University of Bridgeport students at the Vermont campus.

There should be cost savings, one of the biggest arguments for mergers.  As CTPost, observes, “Financially, the goal is to save money through efficiency… Much of the savings will come by integrating administration, merging computer systems and other operations.” My first thought was that while UB wouldn’t realize much (think of the relative scales), Marlboro could rely on the larger school’s infrastructure, which seems likely to mean ending some local services and laying off staff.

Yet as one interlocutor observed on Twitter, that might not amount to much:

My guess is that Marlboro will benefit from having more students.

What about faculty?  No changes are in the offing now, according to Vermont Digger: “School officials at both institutions say that Bridgeport has agreed to preserve most of the Vermont campus and honor all of Marlboro’s tenure agreements with faculty.”

“preserve most of the Vermont campus”?  I suspect that means selling off some of the properties.

One challenge is that these are very different institutions.  As Marlboro admits, “Marlboro [provides an] intimate, self-directed liberal arts education [while] Bridgeport [offers a] STEM focus and extensive professional studies programs.”   Perhaps the new entity will work like large state universities that offer small residential units within.

What does the merger suggest for the future of education?

It may well encourage other mergers nationwide, especially in regions and for sectors that are most demographically and financially challenges.  Think of the midwest and northeast, hardest hit by the “birth dearth.”  Think, too, of small colleges that can’t benefit from economies of scale, as well as rural locales (population of Marlboro town: 978).  While these are private institutions, publics could also be inspired.  Marlboro-UB might counteract the bad publicity following Hampshire College’s disastrous flailing for a merger.  So we should expect more mergers to come.

I’ve been writing “merger,” but the asymmetry of this story suggests “absorption” is a better word.  “White knight” is another term I’ve heard in such discussions.  UB isn’t that wealthy, but it does have resources of scale.  Scale may be one of the lessons here, as America’s unusual focus on developing tiny colleges wanes.

Finally, this is not good news for Vermont.  Remember that Vermont lost three (3!) colleges over the past year.  Note, too, that no Vermont universities stepped up to help Marlboro.  The state government apparently took no action, not even at a policy or public statement level (unlike Massachusetts).  This is the same state that also saw its bond rating cut down twice over the past year.  Losing colleges to closure and out-of-state merger is not going to help Vermont.

(thanks to interlocutors by email, Twitter, and Facebook; Marlboro College windows photo by liz west; thanks to Stephen Landry for first drawing the story to my attention)

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