Bloomfield College will become part of Montclair State University, the institutions announced Wednesday, formalizing a merger that had been in the works for months since Montclair State stepped up to help the financially struggling Bloomfield.
Going forward, Bloomfield will be known as Bloomfield College of Montclair State University.
Bloomfield—a small private liberal arts college in Bloomfield, N.J., that primarily serves Black and Hispanic students—made a public plea for help last fall as it faced threats of closure. Montclair State, a medium-size public research university in Montclair, about 10 miles away, intervened at the time, providing a financial lifeline for Bloomfield that has now materialized into a merger.
The two campuses will soon move forward as one institution. Bloomfield will remain independent in the 2022–23 academic year, with the merger becoming official next June.
A Plea for Help
Like many small liberal arts colleges, Bloomfield has dealt with dwindling enrollment for years. In fall 2012, 2,044 students were enrolled, according to the college’s website. Fast-forward a decade, and just 1,153 students enrolled this fall.
Even as Bloomfield experienced enrollment challenges, another crisis hit in 2020: the coronavirus pandemic, which sent enrollment numbers tumbling and disproportionately affected minority communities. As Black and Hispanic populations struggled with the fallout of COVID-19, so, too, did the college.
“We know in the Northeast that we’re not alone, that a lot of small private institutions are struggling with enrollment,” Marcheta Evans, president of Bloomfield College, told Inside Higher Ed. “But if you go back and look at the demographic of the students that I serve … the pandemic disproportionately impacted us. In one semester I had 200 to 300 students that didn’t show back up in the fall, when we were actually expecting an increase in enrollment, because of our efforts of going out and being in the community, working with the counselors and working with the churches. That’s what we were expecting. Then March 2020 hit.”
With the college in a difficult position, Evans last October made a highly unusual public plea for a strategic partner or major philanthropic boost to keep Bloomfield afloat. Most colleges keep their financial troubles to themselves, for fear of sending students or employees scurrying for the exits. But Bloomfield officials became convinced that going public would help it cast the widest possible net for assistance.
“I did not want to be one of those institutions that is open one day and closed the next,” Evans said.
In response, Bloomfield received interest from 30-plus institutions, Evans said. Eight submitted formal proposals, including Montclair State, Bloomfield’s neighbor down the street. And it wasn’t just the proximity that made sense to Evans but also their similarities in mission; she noted that Montclair is also a Hispanic-serving institution committed to underserved students.
A formal arrangement took shape in March, when Montclair offered a financial lifeline to Bloomfield to remain open as the two institutions launched talks that would soon lead to the merger.
Closing the Deal
Jonathan Koppell, president of Montclair State, also pointed to the similarities between Montclair and Bloomfield, noting that the need to serve underresourced students drew him to consider a partnership with Bloomfield. Given the community that they both serve, Koppell said he saw the chance to absorb Bloomfield College as a way to continue Montclair State’s mission.
“It made sense because of the strong mission alignment between Bloomfield College and Montclair State University. We’re both HSIs, and we’re both schools with a majority-minority population. And more importantly, we’re both committed to creating pathways for students who are often underserved in institutions of higher education, so it would be an abrogation of our mission to stand by and watch Bloomfield College potentially go out of business,” Koppell said.
As Montclair announced its intention to forge a partnership with Bloomfield College, the state of New Jersey also threw its support behind the project, directing $12.5 million to support Bloomfield, which ensured that the struggling college could keep its doors open as the two institutions worked out a deal.
Koppell said there is no purchase price but that Montclair State will take on Bloomfield College’s various assets and liabilities.
“The real story is two institutions realizing that they can do more together than they can apart. I’m very excited about the next step that was announced, this formal agreement, and how this sets in motion the design phase of Bloomfield College of Montclair State University,” Koppell said.
The two institutions hammered out an agreement, which both governing bodies approved, but the hardest phase of the merger may still lie ahead, Koppell said, nodding to the challenges of absorbing another institution. As it stands, there appear to be more questions than answers about the design phase—the work to be done to formally turn two institutions into one entity—which officials at both colleges are working to complete before June, when the merger is official.
One major question hinges on personnel: What will happen to Bloomfield faculty and staff? Both presidents say they want to keep as many people employed as possible, noting that Bloomfield employees may migrate to similar positions at Montclair State.
“My hope is that very few people are left without an opportunity when this merger is effectuated,” Koppell said.
With less than a year before Bloomfield College officially becomes a part of Montclair State University, leadership teams at both universities are now turning their attention to the practical details of the agreement.
The Big Picture
Mergers and acquisitions in higher ed aren’t uncommon. Just this year, Northeastern University in Boston formally absorbed struggling Mills College in California—a move that Mills alumnae waged an unsuccessful legal campaign to stop—Saint Joseph’s University took on University of the Sciences across town in Philadelphia and Marymount California University closed after a merger attempt with Saint Leo University in Florida failed.
Additionally, Otterbein University and Antioch University announced a partnership—but not a full merger—as part of an effort to create a national university system with various shared services.
While there are many reasons for institutions to merge—including viability for colleges that might otherwise go out of business—administrators are often reluctant to pursue such ambitious plans because of all the challenges they present for both institutions.
Julian Treves, who serves as executive director of the admissions counseling firm My College Planning Team and has a background in business and finance, recently laid out some of the motivations and challenges in the CTAS Higher Ed Business newsletter.
Elaborating on these points for Inside Higher Ed, Treves noted that oftentimes there are few incentives for mergers and acquisitions in higher education given the challenges of getting such deals done—including the opposition of tenured faculty and the constant turnover of a college’s customer base: students who come and go every four years or so.
But there are also certain benefits. For example, Treves pointed out that Saint Joseph’s was able to acquire robust health-care programs by purchasing the University of the Sciences, which would have likely taken much longer to build out on its own.
Then, of course, there’s real estate.
“One of the main reasons I thought an institution would want to take over another one is real estate, and in this area of New Jersey, a lot of it is very pricey and land is scarce,” Treves said.
While specifics on how Montclair State will absorb Bloomfield are still in the works, Treves believes the story is trending toward a better ending than it would have if Bloomfield College had not accepted Montclair State’s offer. He credits Bloomfield’s administrators with being transparent, which allowed the college to attract a suitor that will hopefully keep it viable for years to come.
“You hear a lot of lousy stories about colleges shutting with very little notice, and I think it’s worth complimenting Bloomfield College’s management about being very open publicly about its financial troubles. Of course, that’s what any student-serving institution would want to do—they want to get the information out there so students can decide. I credit Bloomfield’s administration for taking this road, and I hope everything works out for everyone involved,” Treves said.