Excellence in Leadership,
Science and Education

Great things are done by a series of small things.


There are generally three forms of major organizational and corporate transformation in higher education — what we often call “Big Scary Change.”

They are mergers (which include what some may term “consolidations” or “acquisitions,” depending on point of view), closures, and corporate conversions (for-profit to nonprofit and vice versa). In a recent widely read op-ed, biology professor Jim Murphy asks the question: “Is a merger a closure by another name?” Murphy works at Bloomfield College, a small nonprofit in New Jersey that is merging with Montclair State University.



The good news? Undergraduate enrollment this fall decreased only 0.6%, the least amount it has fallen since the pandemic started. The bad news? Enrollment in U.S. higher education institutions continues to drop.

No wonder a recent S&P Global Ratings outlook on higher ed is bearish on the industry, citing continued upward pressures on costs and downward pressures on enrollments and margins. This is a less-than-confident outlook from an agency that only examines 450 or so of the financially strongest colleges in the nation.



Last month I had the opportunity to speak to a roomful of college executives interested in the potential of mergers, acquisitions and partnerships at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges annual meeting in Atlanta. Co-leading the session with me was Bonita Jacobs, who was president of North Georgia College & State University when it was merged with Gainesville State College in 2013 to create the University of North Georgia — an institution she still leads.

We primarily focused on the “why” of mergers, discussing what happens to many institutions, notably those that are smaller, if they do not try and find a merger partner in a timely manner. About 15% of all degree-granting institutions in the U.S. have closed in the past decade, and greater than 50% of all school closures in the past 50 years have occurred since 2010.



More than half of the nearly 1,300 institutional closures of the past 50 years have occurred in the past decade — with roughly 15% of all degree-granting institutions of higher education in the U.S. closing in the last 10 years. And college and university closures do not benefit anybody.

By now we have all heard of the recent analysis by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, or NSCRC, in collaboration with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, or SHEEO, which reported that after a college closes, many of the displaced students never earn a degree. That closures detrimentally impact students should not come as a surprise.



Two of Japan’s most prestigious universities sign a pact to merge. Hundreds of students protest a decision to merge their university with two others in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. In Scotland, students and the wider community are being asked to weigh in on a proposed merger of three colleges to create an “anchor institution” within the University of the Highlands and Islands.

What can we learn from these pieces of news? First, that mergers in higher education are a global phenomenon. Second, that mergers are being pursued in many countries to enhance global competitiveness. Third, that mergers inevitably arouse opposition.