Higher Ed Consolidation and Equity
Across American higher education, institutional consolidations are on the rise. In particular, multiple state systems have proposed or completed mergers of regional universities and/or community colleges with the stated goal of increasing efficiency. The conditions prompting these consolidations have been mounting for years—among them a long-term downward trend in state support for higher education and demographic shifts away from traditional-aged college students, especially in rural areas where numerous public institutions are located. With the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to even greater uncertainty in institutional enrollments and finances, the consolidation trend seems likely to accelerate. At the same time, these pandemic conditions have intensified the need for affordable, high-quality postsecondary education, especially among lower-income, minoritized, and adult learners.
Yet despite the high-profile nature of some recent successful and failed consolidations, there is remarkably little in-depth analysis of their conditions, dynamics, and consequences—especially their impact on equitable access to and success in higher education.
A new set of Ithaka S+R publications begins to fill this gap. With support from Lumina Foundation, we have conducted in-depth investigations of three recent examples of state-system-led institutional consolidation efforts: in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Texas. In separately presented case studies, we discuss the origins, motivations, initiation, implementation, and outcomes of these completed consolidation efforts. In each case, in addition to evaluating whether the stated goals were accomplished, we focus particular attention on the implications of the consolidation process and outcomes for racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic equity.
A separate summary report discusses cross-cutting themes and lessons drawn from the three case studies. We identify and elaborate nine key insights and lessons from the case studies, organized in three categories:
- A mismatch between existing capacity and demographic-driven demand is a key underlying motivation for consolidation.
- Local and state politics shape the specific proposals.
- Consolidations are easier to carry out when they are framed around growth than when they are acts of retrenchment.
- Without an explicit focus on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic equity at the planning stage, it is far from certain that minoritized students and other stakeholders will benefit from the consolidation, and unlikely that institutional and system leaders, policymakers, or the public will even know how they fare.
- It is important to consider the impact of consolidation on a variety of stakeholders through an equity lens, including current and prospective students (both first time in college and transfer), faculty, staff, and members of the communities in which the institutions are located.
- Going public with a decision to consolidate is more likely to lead to a completed consolidation than going public with a proposal to consolidate.
- Consolidating a two-year and a four-year institution and retaining both missions has certain advantages over consolidating institutions of the same type.
- Consolidations remain “in process” for longer than anticipated and in some cases longer than is even realized by most observers.
- Consolidations can increase productivity but rarely decrease costs.
All of these reports are available on a dedicated page.
We identified more than 20 recent examples of state-system consolidations in our research. Do these insights hold for those we didn’t investigate? What other lessons do those who participated in or were affected by consolidations have to share?