One Boston university may save a nearby college by absorbing it

Two Boston-area campuses are considering a merger, as one in facing very hard times. Wheelock College officially announced that it is exploring being absorbed by Boston University.  BU is far, far larger (32,000+ students) and wealthier than, and also one mile away from, Wheelock.  BU is a research-1 university, while its partner is a private liberal arts college.

Wheelock College sealThe official statement directly describes the crisis:

The discussions between the two institutions come at a time when the higher education landscape, particularly small private colleges, is adapting to pressure from declining enrollment, tightening budgets, and increasing tuition costs.

This comes as no surprise to my readers, since not only have I been following the general higher ed crisis closely, but earlier this summer I wrote about Wheelock’s escalating crisis. That crisis is driven by – say it with me – enrollment and financial pressures.

The Boston Globe describes how the merger would work institutionally, based on an email from Wheelock’s president:

Wheelock’s School of Education, Child Life, and Family Studies would merge with BU’s School of Education to create the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Other programs at Wheelock would merge with similar programs at BU…

In the short term,

[Wheelock President] Chard said administrators of the two schools will work with professors and staff of the two schools in the coming weeks to determine how the schools would combine while preserving the mission of Wheelock, a school focused on social work and education.

Chard said many details are still not worked out, including the exact structure of the academic programs in the new college and who would lead it. BU’s education college currently has an interim dean.

New undergraduate students to the new college would be admitted through the BU admissions process and be considered part of the BU student body. It was unclear Tuesday afternoon what would happen to current Wheelock students.

What does this story tell us about higher education in general?  What trends does it embody?

  • It reminds us that liberal education is not succeeding generally in making the case for its value.  Yes, the elite and wealthiest liberal arts colleges are doing fine, but the second and third tier institutions are facing an uphill battle.
  • It also suggests that scale is a key issue.  Recall that American higher education is unusual in supporting a great deal of very small colleges.  Most other nations prefer higher ed at higher scales, with each institution teaching tens of thousands of students.  Perhaps the United States is experiencing a market correction, and the big picture could see the average campus size rise over a generation.
  • Geographical proximity plays a key role in making this merger possible.
  • Demographics continue to drive change, as I keep telling people.  Recall that Boston is in New England, where the K-12 population is shrinking, which heightens competition among campuses serving traditional-age students.
  • The urban aspect: one lesson of the Sweet Briar story was that rural schools face a geographical challenge as people increasingly prefer urban settings.  The Wheelock case suggests that broader economic and demographic trends can sometimes trump a city location.
  • Wheelock has a strong social mission.  How can American campuses support that kind of excellent and needed approach in this new economy?
  • Mergers may become a serious path forward for struggling academic institutions.  Perhaps we will see the total number of American colleges and universities decrease.

(thanks to Tony Sindelar)

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