Improving the odds of a successful merger (opinion)

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Some communities have a saying: “It takes a lot of living to learn to just live for today.” For them, the past is past and the future may not come, so you should live in the moment.

That defines what’s happening to higher education institutions right now. The past is past. Our high-water enrollment mark peaked around 2014 and has been receding ever since. Our future? Some private institutions have gone from a relatively gentle enrollment decline to a steep drop this past year.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s final report for fall 2020 noted that college enrollments declined 2.5 percent — twice the rate of decline reported in fall 2019. Higher education lost about 400,000 students over all. Community college enrollment saw the sharpest plunges: freshman enrollment was down 13.1 percent, and overall enrollment was down 10.1 percent — higher than the 9.5 percent decline in the previous report. Finally, public colleges lost 4 percent of their enrollment — a serious decline, given the fact that public institutions enroll seven out of 10 students.

Many institutions are slashing budgets, cutting faculty and closing facilities just to stay alive. But unfortunately, that may not be enough.

Now is the time for institutions of higher learning to partner, merge and adapt to shifting needs. But when is the right time to take the leap? How do you know you’ll be successful? And how do you improve the odds?

At the culmination of an 18-month process, Mercy College came to an agreement with the College of New Rochelle (CNR) — just before the COVID pandemic hit. By all measures, the agreement has been successful from a student, faculty, financial and regulatory standpoint. Mercy inherited nearly 1,800 new students from CNR, a college with large and well-regarded nursing degree programs. At the time, 1,500 students were enrolled at CNR, and 300 had prepared to join CNR but launched their college careers at Mercy instead.

To date, Mercy College has graduated roughly 650 students who formerly studied at the College of New Rochelle and is continuing to provide about 750 former CNR students with the relevant coursework leading to their degrees on three remaining CNR campuses and online.

Whether by choice or by chance — especially in light of COVID — we learned important lessons from this agreement that might benefit other institutions if they’re contemplating a merger, agreement or acquisition.

  • Act in the moment. If your institution can see a serious downturn coming, don’t wait until it is here to launch a partner search. And don’t count on federal stimulus money to save the day. Even if your college is fortunate to get this help, it may very well just prolong the inevitable. It’s better to start looking sooner rather than later — and you’ll have more options if you do so.
  • Work with an impartial third party to find the right match. Many professional consultants and organizations will see things in your college or university that you don’t see yourselves — as well as in the institutions you’re considering partnering or merging with. These advisers can create a matrix of what to look for objectively in a merger partner, identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie, help you find partners that fill in the gaps, and advise on how best to create a productive partnership moving forward.
  • Don’t make real estate assets the rationale for a partnership, unless you need them. What you don’t want is to acquire a college that has land and buildings you don’t need or that come with deferred loans or maintenance payments — and then be forced to spend time and energy selling them off. You’re in the education business, not the commercial real estate business.
  • Address the regulatory and continuity issues ASAP. When we agreed to merge with the College of New Rochelle, we simultaneously began the process of securing the necessary regulatory approvals to provide degree programs it offered that Mercy College did not. The intention was to ensure that all CNR students in good standing would be able to continue their educations uninterrupted, without losing any credits or time toward graduation. One advantage for us was that, by incorporating CNR’s nursing degrees into our already robust nursing program, the combined Mercy College would now be the only institution in the region to offer every undergraduate and graduate nursing degree.
  • Minimize disruption for faculty, staff, students and alumni. Mercy College retained more than 70 CNR faculty and staff members and leased three campus locations to ensure its students had continuity. Mercy also promised to provide a new home and support for more than 40,000 CNR alumni. And for the students who had planned to graduate from CNR, the agreement was, in the main, a teach-out. Mercy committed to providing a seamless pathway to graduation that did not saddle students with any additional course requirements. CNR students generally saw a reduction in their tuition and fees, as well.
  • Understand the fit. The College of New Rochelle served a somewhat older, predominantly lower-income and minority (about 80 percent Hispanic) student population. Many of those students came from the Bronx and Westchester County. Mercy College’s student population is about 33 percent Hispanic, 33 percent African American, 33 percent white and 1 percent Asian. Many of our students also come from lower-income families in the Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester, and many of them are also older than the traditional college student. For Mercy and CNR, this is an excellent fit.
  • Identify what challenges lie ahead and meet them head-on. Our biggest challenge, for all our students, is improving our graduation rate. When I became president of Mercy College, before the CNR agreement, our graduation rate for minority students was unacceptably low. And the graduation gap between minority and white students was unacceptably high. CNR’s graduation rate, especially among minority students, was even lower than ours. But long before we even considered an agreement, I made it my and Mercy’s mission to elevate minority graduation rates and eliminate the graduation-rate gap between them and our white students.

We were making excellent progress until the COVID pandemic changed everything. Now we’re faced with the same problem on a larger scale, with a wild card of COVID, which has forced some students to step back — perhaps because of deaths in the family, job losses or a lack of hope that their communities can turn around. We call this “going dark,” and we’re doing our best to meet it head-on, one student at a time — actively asking what’s going on with them and how we can help financially, academically and personally. We want these students to stay in college or return and succeed, and we are determined to regain our minority graduation momentum.

Maybe graduating more minority students isn’t just a question of helping them cope with the crises they face or even offering more B.A., B.S. or nursing degrees and programs. Maybe we need to create other programs, partnerships and degrees that are more in keeping with our students’ and local businesses’ needs. If we want to survive, we’ll need to keep adapting, refashioning and forming new alliances. As painful as today is, it’s all for nothing if we as institutions of higher learning don’t adapt, change and make it to tomorrow.