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Montclair State is in a strong financial position, allowing it to support its New Jersey neighbor.

Courtesy of Mike Peters, Montclair State University

Montclair State University, a public, four-year institution in New Jersey, announced Wednesday it will extend financial support to nearby Bloomfield College until the two institutions can work out a more formal merger or acquisition deal.

Bloomfield has sought financial help since October, when President Marcheta Evans announced that without an institutional partner or philanthropic support, the college would likely close. At the time, Evans’s frankness surprised some higher education officials. Mergers and acquisitions—and many other financial arrangements—between institutions are typically hammered out behind closed doors. But Bloomfield has been transparent from day one, and that has likely paid off, experts say.

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy also included a $5 million line item for the partnership in his budget proposal, which, if the Legislature approves it, would support Bloomfield while it works out the details with Montclair State.

The proposed one-time state funding “seems to me to suggest there’s political support and the willingness to provide financial resources to Bloomfield,” said John MacIntosh, managing partner of SeaChange Capital Partners (and an occasional opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed).

The financial agreement between Montclair State and Bloomfield will essentially serve as a line of credit, said Jonathan Koppell, president of Montclair State. Bloomfield can draw on that credit to support its operations as necessary.

“We are very heartened by the fact that the state of New Jersey is likely … to put $5 million towards this project. And we think that reduces the likelihood of us having to make a loan,” Koppell said. “But it’s possible.”

The two institutions will begin meeting over the next few months to develop a path forward, and they hope to finalize their plans before this fall, according to Koppell.

Bloomfield, a private, predominantly Black institution about seven miles south of Montclair State, has experienced declining enrollment for years. During the 2019–20 academic year, the college enrolled 1,598 undergraduates, compared to 1,896 during the 2016–17 academic year and 2,018 during the 2010–11 academic year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The college was also hit particularly hard by the pandemic, Evans said.

“We were really anticipating an increase in enrollment in the fall of 2020, and in March is when [the pandemic] completely flipped the script,” she said.

Many Bloomfield students come from low-income households and chose not to pursue higher education during the initial waves of the pandemic.

“Our students just couldn’t afford to come to school,” Evans said. “The median family income for my students is a little over $32,000—so when your dollars are scarce, you’re going to say, ‘OK, you can’t go to school right now.’ They go to work to try to help support the family. That was what happened with a lot of our students.”

The call for financial help last fall led to a boost in enrollment in the spring, Evans said, despite concerns that it would make students wary to commit to the college. Bloomfield is also predicting a small enrollment bump next fall, so it’s possible the college won’t need to lean on Montclair State for financial help. But in the event it does, “we’re ready to jump in as needed,” Koppell said. “That’s the whole point of this.”

More than 30 institutions reached out to the college to help, and ultimately Bloomfield officials pursued a partnership with Montclair State.

“Bloomfield College is the only four-year [predominantly Black institution] and [Hispanic-serving institution] in the state of New Jersey,” Evans said. “We don’t have any HBCUs. So we’ve had so much support throughout the state saying that ‘We cannot let this institution fail.’”

In MacIntosh’s view, Evans’s candor worked well for the college.

“Ethically, but also perhaps pragmatically, being transparent is the right answer,” MacIntosh said, noting that if Bloomfield hid its situation, Montclair State might not have engaged with the college.

Montclair State has been watching its enrollment grow for more than a decade. Last fall, the university welcomed its largest-ever first-year class, and it’s on track to do the same this fall. The university is in a strong financial position, and supporting Bloomfield helps fulfill Montclair State’s mission, Koppell said.

“Being a public university is not just about getting some money from the state. Public universities are about embracing your public purpose and your public mission,” he said. “Even though Bloomfield is private, we think its mission is critical to the state of New Jersey—serving students who are not well served.”

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