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College mergers a prescription in meeting higher ed headaches

May 10, 2018
By: Ellen Marrison

Declining enrollments, higher costs and limited state funding continue to challenge higher education institutions, and possible mergers continue to surface as an option to meeting those challenges. In Pennsylvania, a new study sponsored by the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee identifies options to help ensure the sustainability of the State System of Higher Education, and mergers factor into those considerations. However, in Connecticut a plan to merge the state’s 12 community colleges into one was rejected last month by its regional accrediting authority, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

The Connecticut merger plan was formulated as a way to save money for the struggling community colleges. But the plan was called unrealistic by NEASC, who voiced concerns that it could cause a disorderly environment for students and felt it was actually creating a new college and not just a substantive change. What the future holds for the colleges is uncertain, and the president of the Connecticut Board of Regents is considering closing one or more campuses or raising tuition.

In order to more closely study the viability of the universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (State System) in the coming years, a committee of the Pennsylvania legislature commissioned a study to address the same kind of challenges facing Connecticut’s community colleges — declining enrollment and limited state funding. The five recommendations arising from the study range from keeping the current state system structure with some improvements to consolidating the 14 state universities into a smaller number, to eliminating the state system structure and convert them to state-related status.

The Pennsylvania study, conducted by the RAND Corporation, states that it should “be informative to those in other states that might be facing similar challenges.” Many states across the nation, especially those in the Northeast and Midwest are indeed facing similar situations and the trend toward mergers is not slowing, said Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Harnisch said the mergers present a cost savings, but not a substantial change.

“The merger trend will continue as state leaders look at demographics in the next 10 to 15 years and are trying to look for a sustainable path forward, particularly in the rural areas,” Harnisch said.

The Knocking at the College Door report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education noted that the number of high school graduates in the U.S. has plateaued and is projected to decline further before seeing renewed growth in 2024 to 2026. Between 2027 and 2032, the average size of graduating high school classes is expected to be smaller than those in 2013.

States continue to set higher goals for educational attainment to meet workforce demand, and mergers and restructuring proposals “have to be considered in the context of big state attainment goals,” Harnisch maintains. “The key is to expand access and strengthen academic programming.”

Noting that institutions of higher education are key players in the economic development of a region, Harnisch said policy prescriptions should focus on two goals: making sure that institutions are investing in their capacity to serve their students and regions, and looking for ways to be more efficient and collaborative such as sharing back office functions so that every possible dollar goes into an institution’s academic core.

“It is essential that the private sector makes its voice heard on the future of regions and work in coordination with higher education committees and local and state governments,” Harnisch said. “All the stakeholders need to be at the table for regions to succeed in the decades ahead.”

Connecticut, Pennsylvaniacommunity college, higher ed