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Employing a Strategic Guiding Framework and a Students-First Ethos in Higher Education Mergers, Acquisitions, and Partnerships - Guest Blog by Provost Debra Leahy

August 24, 2018 10:21 AM | ACHE Home Office (Administrator)

Higher Education Merger Landscape

The landscape of higher education is rapidly changing in ways that could not have been fully predicted for an industry that has prided itself on tradition, especially in New England. While higher education mergers have occurred over the last few decades, they rarely drew public attention. Rather, these mergers or other partnerships were viewed as academic-business decisions that were necessary and handled discretely between the two institutions. Examples such as Lesley University’s merger with Art Institute of Boston, have not only appeared seamless to the public eye but have resulted in a visible honoring of the image and legacy of the institution that was subsumed within the wider university, such as Lesley University’s College of Art and Design’s vibrant facade on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge coupled with dynamic gallery shows demonstrating a proud history of arts-based education and community involvement.

Then, isolated stories of smaller institutions closing emerged. A scan of headlines from Inside Higher Ed over the past three years evidences a rapidly changing landscape with headlines, such as “Enrollment Decline Drove Closure of Marian Court College” and “Mount Ida, After Trying for a Merger, Will Shut Down” as well as reactive, follow up headlines, such as “Accreditor Places Sweet Briar on Warning” and “Massachusetts Debates New Regulatory Requirements on Private Colleges in the Wake of Mount Ida’s Closure.”

Based on the above scan of headlines from Inside Higher Ed, one can portend that the future of higher education, especially that of smaller institutions, is uncertain. However, there has also been a collective pause and reflection regarding this new landscape. After the decision between Montserrat College of Art and Salem State University to not merge, Kellie Woodhouse, of Inside Higher Ed, reflected that in the higher education industry “there’s relatively little literature for colleges on how to consider a merger. And while many in higher education agree that mergers could increase, data are sparse on mergers and their frequency.”

Indeed, there have been recent acquisitions and mergers, such as Berklee College of Music’s merger with Boston Conservatory and Boston University’s merger with Wheelock College, that have been viewed as positive and forward looking. Yet, with headlines that are too often riddled with bad news, isn’t it time to encourage discourse, case studies, and reflective accounts, from mergers such as those above, that can contribute to answering the question: what are the tenets that can make a higher education merger or acquisition work effectively? We certainly do not want to encourage the belief that there is a one-size-fits-all approach; however, learning from best practices has been core to higher education’s progress and advancement throughout history.

My Experience at New England College of Business

My institution, New England College of Business (NECB), offers an account of a successful asset acquisition. In 2017, we were approached by the President of the National Graduate School of Quality Management (NGS), then located in Falmouth, MA. NGS had suffered losses from past leadership, and although they were prideful about the education that they delivered, financial circumstances led them to consider closure, merger, or being acquired.

The first successful element of what would become an asset acquisition of NGS by NECB was a full assessment of institutional alignment. While Inside Higher Ed quoted consultant, Ronald Saluzzo, as stating that too many institutions consider academic alignment after negotiations have begun, the first order of business for the NECB-NGS arrangement was to fully factor in institutional and academic alignment. The assessment showed: 

  • both institutions educated adult, professional learners; 
  • worked with a corporate partnership model to enroll their employees and therefore make critical workforce education contributions; 
  • maintained affordable tuition rates; and 
  • delivered highly outcomes-based academic programs with strong return on investment for the corporate partners' employee-students whom they served.

The second successful element that guided the asset acquisition was to place all operational decision making with a strategic guiding framework. Naturally, since both NECB and NGS are small colleges, the pending arrangement felt lofty at times. However, NECB worked directly, collaboratively, and transparently with its state licensing agency and regional accreditor, New England Association of Colleges and Universities-Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE). Based on meaningful conversations with NEASC-CIHE, NECB created a strategic guiding framework predicated on: consistency followed by integration. By following a strategic guiding framework, the myriad operational decision making that occurs on a daily basis of an asset acquisition can be considered strictly within these parameters, such as:

Consistency:  In all of its decisions, NECB led by the mantra of Students First and worked with the full understanding that a strong priority was to transfer students from NGS to NECB with the least amount of disruption to their studies. In order to do so, NECB adopted NGS’s courseware and kept the NGS curriculum intact. NECB was able to transition almost all of the NGS students. NECB also made the decision to hire almost all of the NGS adjunct faculty and even a select number of NGS staff as a means of consistency and disciplinary expertise. NECB even invited all NGS graduates who had not participated in a commencement ceremony, due to the transition period, to attend NECB’s June Commencement.

Integration: While primary considerations involved maintaining the NGS curriculum for the students who transferred, there was equal understanding that the programs that NECB acquired from NGS will now be part of the long-term NECB academic portfolio. Therefore, once all possible measures of consistency were availed, all measures then turned to ensuring that the new academic programs met NECB’s academic standards and delivery methods and that the programs would be fully integrated with NECB’s academic portfolio. New students, from here on, will study in the enhanced curriculum and be integrated into NECB’s services, LMS, and its academic traditions.

While all stakeholders will not be part of all of the negotiations that lead to a merger, acquisition or partnership, based on our experience, we strongly recommend using a strategic guiding framework for daily operational decision making. We also recommend that Students First be a central tenet to the guiding strategic decision making.

To date, the asset acquisition has been positive and NGS dissolved its operations with dignity. NECB strives to maintain the legacy of NGS by delivering the acquired programs under a “School of Quality Systems Management.” We may not have the vibrant physical façade with the NGS legacy displayed; yet, we have former NGS students, now NECB students, pursuing their education, having their hard work honored, and a portfolio of new academic programs that have a vibrant future under the aegis of NECB!

Debra Leahy
New England College of Business
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