95 college mergers have taken place in the past 4 years. That’s 21% more than any prior point in the 21st century. Despite the federal government spending billions to keep colleges afloat during the pandemic, 500 4-year colleges may still close in the near future. When two college institutions agree to merge, it’s a last-ditch attempt at survival.
Why are colleges struggling? The COVID-19 pandemic created a short-term crisis, but it’s not the only force at play. Undergraduate enrollment has fallen by 9.4% since the pandemic began. Up to 40% of prospective college students delayed their college plans due to financial strain or preference for in-person instruction.
Reasons Behind College Mergers
Some students are foregoing college altogether, reflecting a growing shift in sentiment. From 2013 to 2019, the number of US adults who consider a college degree “very important” fell 19%. College degrees are no longer guarantees of a higher income. Americans are increasingly able to shift into highly-skilled jobs without getting a degree because they completed certification online. In a time when both established universities at fresh start-ups were teaching the same subject material online, many students benefited from the start-ups’ affordability.
Beyond the students, many college campuses aren’t able to hire enough staff. By now, it’s a familiar story; employees furloughed during the pandemic moved on or retired, leaving colleges unprepared for the return of students to campus. This lack of support staff puts colleges at risk of noncompliance with federal and state rules.
Seeing the writing on the wall, some colleges have elected to join forces rather than fade out of existence. The most common mergers happen with smaller schools located in the same state as one another. For example, Delaware State University announced plans to acquire neighboring Wesley College in 2021. In 2022, Connecticut’s community colleges planned to merge into a single college with a dozen campuses. Consolidation can help streamline operations and reduce competition for students. The most common mergers happen to private non-profit schools with fewer than 5,000 total students. This is because smaller, less prestigious private schools are seeing higher than average declines in enrollment.
College mergers can save the day in the short run, but they leave behind certain concerns. Smaller schools may offer unique student experiences that are lost during a merger. Students and faculty leaders fear losing their voice when they become part of a larger system. Minority students may lose institutional support as well. Hopefully, this trend will help turn the tide and allow college institutions to thrive ones again.