When the University of Bridgeport's attempt to merge with Marlboro College fell apart last year, it wasn't clear whether the institution would seek out another deal.
Last week brought an answer. Three Connecticut colleges announced a plan to absorb portions of the University of Bridgeport and form a consortium of schools on its campus. That will allow them to split operating costs and create a shared campus that lets students take courses from all three institutions.
Goodwin University is buying about 80% of the buildings on the campus, its president said. It's also snapping up several programs, including degrees in elementary education, nursing and dental hygiene.
Meanwhile, Sacred Heart University is acquiring some graduate programs — including those in engineering and chiropractic — along with a handful of buildings, while the Paier College of Art, a for-profit institution, is taking over the school's design programs.
The U of Bridgeport's president told faculty and staff in an email Tuesday that officials are sustaining the university by making its campus into "a hub for several colleges." It plans to move most of its degree offerings to one of three colleges on the shared campus, though it's still working out transfer details for some programs.
It has yet to be determined whether the U of Bridgeport will exist after it transfers its programs to other institutions, a university spokesperson wrote in an email Wednesday.
The apparent takeover highlights some of the challenges colleges face today. Enrollment is dropping in parts of the country, including New England, and private institutions are losing revenue by offering students more generous tuition discounts. The coronavirus crisis has further strapped some institutions, which are losing critical sources of auxiliary revenue and making big investments to offer education virtually.
"Higher education is entering an era where consolidation of the market will take place," said Rick Beyer, a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. "Post-COVID, that consolidation trend is going to start to accelerate, with even more hard closures in the next 12 to 24 months."
The U of Bridgeport, which enrolls about 4,600 students, has experienced some of the issues plaguing the sector. In recent years, it's spent more money on grants, and its expenses exceeded its revenue by $6 million in the 2018 fiscal year, according to tax documents.
Goodwin University President Mark Scheinberg says Bridgeport likely could have operated for a few more years. But he lauded its decision to seek out partners to help it wind down in an orderly manner. Other colleges, he contended, can often be unrealistic about whether a turnaround is possible, leading to disruptive closures.
The former leaders of Mount Ida College, for instance, are now facing a class-action lawsuit from former students who allege the Massachusetts institution committed fraud by hiding knowledge of its financial distress before abruptly closing in 2018.
The U of Bridgeport will continue operating in the 2020-21 academic year, which Scheinberg said will give the colleges time to work through the accreditation hurdles related to undergoing a change in ownership.
"To (the U of Bridgeport's) great credit, they're doing something they didn't have to do this year," Scheinberg said. "But they realized something had to be done in the long run."
A new path forward
Longstanding challenges in the sector coupled with the coronavirus crisis could prompt more colleges to consider forming consortia or even merging with other institutions. "I'm now starting to see (financially healthy) institutions think about long-term affiliations and other alternatives to being independent," Beyer said.
Enrollment steadily increased at Goodwin and Sacred Heart between 2009 and 2018, according to government data. On the other hand, Paier College of Art's enrollment plummeted from 227 students in 2009 to 83 about a decade later.
Goodwin's president views the consortium as a framework that can help struggling institutions, particularly small colleges, avoid financial ruin. "Those institutions, each running separately with 600 or 800 or 1,000 students, is probably not a great economic model," he said.
By sharing courses and instructors, these partnerships can also help colleges expand their academic offerings with minimal investment, said Susan Campbell Baldridge, co-author of "The College Stress Test" and a strategic consultant for colleges.
"Students can fairly seamlessly move about the consortium, perhaps without even realizing which faculty member was hired by which institution," she said.
Several other colleges have set up similar arrangements. The Claremont Colleges consortium, in California, brings together five private colleges and two graduate institutions on a roughly 550-acre, shared campus. Students attending one of the member institutions can cross-enroll in courses and participate in multicampus organizations.
The Five College Consortium, in Massachusetts, joins four small liberal arts colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The institutions share resources such as a library system, have joint programs and departments, and students can take courses across the consortium.
And three liberal arts colleges in Vermont founded the Green Mountain Higher Education Consortium to enter contracts together and share administrative costs.
"Post-COVID, that consolidation trend is going to start to accelerate, with even more hard closures in the next 12 to 24 months."
Senior Fellow, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
The three institutions in Connecticut similarly plan to share buildings, such as dining facilities, and services like snow removal. However, leaders of the new consortium say they still need to hammer out the details of how these costs will be distributed.
"I'm sure we're going to trip and fall on some of this stuff until we understand it," said John Petillo, president of Sacred Heart University. "But it's certainly not our intent to put up walls around ourselves."
The pandemic will likely complicate some of this planning, Campbell Baldridge said. Having to coordinate virtual communication rather than in-person meetings could make the process feel like "a bigger deal than it might otherwise," she explained.
Meshing the cultures of the three institutions will also be tricky, sources interviewed for this story said.
"It is probably going to be an ongoing challenge," Goodwin's Scheinberg said, adding that it's up to the colleges to help students "see themselves as a person living within a community."