Lessons for Colleges From K-12 Mergers

Benefits can, in fact, occur when the people involved in consolidations give them a chance, argue Scott Menzel and Russ Olwell.

April 25, 2019

Are more mergers in the future for higher education? The question of whether to merge with another institution, to sell assets or to simply close has become much more prevalent in recent years, with Wheelock College merging with Boston University and Mount Ida College closing due to a failed merger. And now, with the potential merger of Hampshire College and the closure of several more smaller New England campuses, it is increasingly clear that college consolidations will no longer be isolated incidents.

As many smaller higher education institutions look for ways to remain relevant and sustainable, a merger or consolidation can be an important option to consider, particularly given the stark human cost of buyouts and shutdowns. Such an option can give those institutions a chance at new life, professionals a chance to continue their careers and students a chance to continue their education.

Many of the hard choices that smaller colleges find themselves grappling with today are similar to those troubled K-12 schools previously faced. For decades, going back to James Conant’s call for consolidation to create larger high schools in the 1950s, many elementary and secondary school districts nationwide, both rural and urban, have had to decide whether to merge with neighboring districts. We have served as advisers to several mergers and consolidations in K-12 schools, and we think that, in fact, higher education might find some helpful lessons in the experiences of those schools.

For K-12 schools, consolidation has been neither salvation nor damnation. The limited research on the subject has shown that under some circumstances, mergers have worked out well, while in other cases, the process has been less positive. Consolidation, historically, has made the most sense for relatively small districts that, when working together as one, can then have the critical mass of students and support needed to survive.

The first thing colleges should know when considering a merger is that the situation must be truly dire for the conversation to begin authentically. In many cases, the institutions involved must face a serious threat of closure or other disciplinary sanction before they can even start to bring their governing boards and other constituents to the table. For example, two districts we worked with in Michigan faced severe financial problems. They also confronted the potential of a state takeover for academic purposes, as well as a previous example of the state turning a whole school district over to a charter operator. While earlier efforts to talk about mergers led nowhere, a truly frightening constellation of hazards brought everyone together in time to avoid catastrophe.

Higher education institutions must deal with somewhat different issues than K-12 schools when it comes to survival and consolidation. An elementary or secondary school serves a distinct market, one in which, in many areas, there is an obvious reason for existence. That market is largely determined by geography, although that is less so in a school-of-choice environment, which is increasingly the case in states across the nation.

By contrast, particularly in regions rich in public and private institutions, each college or university must think hard about its reasons for existence and what market niche it serves. And as the number of high school graduates drops or remains stagnant in various parts of the country, more small and midsize colleges will have to deal with difficult questions about their particular constituencies and whether they can distinctly serve those constituencies.

But K-12 and higher education institutions also share some common concerns, and the experiences of elementary and secondary schools suggest that colleges have good reason to think more about the positive impacts of consolidation. K-12 school districts that have undergone the process of consolidating have been able to take advantage of some of the opportunities that are part of the process. While these are not guaranteed outcomes, we have seen the following benefits occur when the stakeholders involved in a merger give them a chance.

Consolidation provides an opportunity for institutions to study what they are doing well, where they are falling short and what they can do to transform themselves. As part of one K-12 district consolidation process we advised, stakeholders were asked hard questions about both educational and community issues. Where had both districts fallen short in serving their students? What groups of students had fared significantly worse than others up until that point? What audacious goals could the new district pursue for all students? Committees drawn from the two institutions and their communities worked for months to complete draft plans about the consolidation, drawing upon community input as well as data about student achievement. At the end of the process, the final plan garnered more than enough votes in both communities to move forward.

Consolidation efforts allow institutions to rethink their staffing and the mix of professionals they need to grow and thrive. In many cases, shrinking enrollments lead to lopsided and oddly shaped administrative and teaching work forces. In the process of merging, while every position may not be preserved, the institutions involved can set standards and criteria for their work force that match the needs of the new combined institution. That can lead to a more cohesive and higher quality of personnel than the two former institutions possessed. While this is a painful process for the individuals that lose their positions, it is preferable to the wholesale chaos brought about by a closure in which all employees are terminated.

Consolidations give institutions a chance to combine their different identities and cultures to create something new and distinctive. A well-thought-out process of consolidation allows institutions to draw what is positive from their past cultures, to shed the parts that don’t work and to create and build a new identity. That can involve reconsidering names, mascots and logos, among many other things. Higher education, like K-12 education, is full of outdated, stereotypical identity messages -- and mergers can be a fresh start to building an image and brand for the combined institution that reflect what it truly aspires to be.

New leaders emerge from consolidation efforts. A well-run consolidation process can provide the merged institution a new board and administration -- and a chance to improve leadership and administrative capabilities.

The merged institution can develop innovative and synergistic programs and services. While not guaranteed, the institution might draw from elements of the two former groups to create new innovations. In the case of two school districts we worked with, a strong after-school robotics program became the seed for the establishment, after the merger, of a new STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and manufacturing) early middle college -- or a school within the high school.

Of course, consolidation efforts have some potential downsides. There are no guarantees that a merger will have a positive impact. For a newly merged educational institution, there is no simple “corner to turn” after which things return to their pre-merger “normal.” The consolidation effort, and the establishment and growth of the new institution, will be bumpy. Resources may continue to be scarce. Enrollment numbers may sag before they improve. The institution will never go back to the way it was before the merger, although it will continue to evolve along its own path.

What’s more, the positive aspects of consolidation can take time to emerge. It took several years before the new district we worked with saw any uptick in student enrollment. In fact, the benefits of the changes may not come to fruition for many years, taxing the patience of many stakeholders.

But the upside of consolidation, the potential for real change and improvement, has often been overlooked in the discourse about many higher education institutions’ challenging financial situations. Rather than viewing a merger as a last resort, one last desperate measure to take before selling a campus’s buildings to a rival, they should see it as a strategic decision -- one that might benefit many colleges and universities throughout the nation.


Scott Menzel is superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and served as head of the leadership team for Ypsilanti Community Schools during its consolidation. Russ Olwell is associate dean of education and social policy at Merrimack College. His institution made two excellent hires as a result of the Boston University-Wheelock College merger.

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