The United States has thousands of colleges and universities. Some colleges were founded before American independence while others sprang up this century. For most of the nation’s history, population growth and expanded access to education has encouraged more institutions to enter the market. Now, the number of unique colleges and universities in the United States is falling. In the past 4 years, there were 95 college mergers. For many, these mergers are the only way to keep doors open. Bar major shifts in trajectory, as many as 500 4-year colleges are at risk of closure in the next few years.
Why are Colleges Merging?
The main reason college numbers are dropping is because undergraduate enrollment has fallen. Nearly 1.4 million fewer students are in college today than were there prior to the pandemic. Up to 40% of prospective students (high school seniors and recent graduates, mostly) are delaying college plans due to financial strain or a desire for colleges to return to “normal.” Potential students value the online learning universities were forced to resort to during lockdown less than they do the traditional college experience.
Some people value higher education overall less than did generations in the past, and that was a trend even before the pandemic. In 2013, 70% of US adults considered a college degree “very important” to success; by 2019, only 51% did. While the general trend of college graduates making more money than high school graduates still holds, exceptions are growing more common. Even after working 10 years, 1 in 6 college grads earn less than high school grads in the same cohort. During the pandemic, more people took advantage of online certifications to break into high skilled job fields. These certifications are often cheaper to obtain than a college degree, but may provide the same employment results.
Mergers Can be a Good Thing
Given that colleges nationwide are serving a smaller pool of students, fewer institutions can flourish on their own. Consolidation between 2 or more schools can help streamline operations and reduce competition for students. This year, Connecticut’s community colleges plan to merge into a single college with a dozen campuses. At the 4 year level, Pennsylvania has a similar plan; 6 of their public institutions will merge into 2 new universities. Mergers are most likely to happen at the local level because nearby mergers bring economies of scale and help campuses expand locally. While Northeastern University and Mills College made headlines for their cross-country being sued by Mills alumni, their story is the exception and not the rule.
While college mergers can keep the doors open for institutions that otherwise would have closed, the process has its drawbacks. Smaller schools are at a greater risk of closure, but many offer unique student experiences that can’t be replicated at larger universities. Minority students, for example, often lose out in the merger process because equity is easily overlooked when planning a merger. Merging into a larger university may also dilute the voices of students and faculty leaders with that of strangers to the campus.