How can governors oversee successful higher education mergers?

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Ricardo Azziz has held numerous executive positions in higher education and led the merger that resulted in Georgia Regents University, now Augusta University. He is principal at Strategic Partnerships in Higher Education, or SPH, Consulting Group. 

He writes the regular Merger Watch opinion series on corporate restructuring in higher education.

Facing increasingly dire enrollment trends and forecasts, several state governors have recently announced the intention to consolidate their public higher education institutions or are weighing whether they should. That includes Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster

Opponents have been quick to react, with the governing board of Eastern Oklahoma State College rebuffing a merger proposal from the state’s governor. The consolidation proposal in Pennsylvania seemed to fare better, with current higher ed institution leaders publicly expressing support. 

These announcements follow similar efforts in other states, including Kansas, Vermont, Georgia and Connecticut. Considering the increasing challenges to higher education, we should expect that merger initiatives from state leaders will grow in the coming years.

State governments — and ergo, state taxpayers — are important funders of higher education, an expenditure that directly competes with other interests. An analysis by the Urban Institute noted state and local governments spent $321 billion on higher education in 2020, about 9% of their total direct general spending. That represents the fourth largest bucket of funding, which is about equal to spending on health and hospitals. 

A headshot image of Ricardo Azziz

Ricardo Azziz

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Pressure will grow to reduce investment in higher education as the demand continues or increases from other sectors, including healthcare for an aging population and maintenance and upgrades for maturing infrastructure. 

Changes in state demographics also play a significant role in the drive to consolidate public colleges and universities. Most higher education systems were built and have continued to expand with the expectation that the traditional population of college students would continue to grow. But those predictions are now facing a harsh reality check. 

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that most state populations stayed flat or increased modestly in 2023. 

However, these figures mask the significant decrease in some states’ pool of traditional-aged students, typically considered between 18 to 25 years old. Between the 2012-13 and 2026-27 academic years, 17 states are predicted to see their number of high school graduates decline, according to estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Unfortunately, state officials often pair their intention to consolidate higher education with a less laudable trend — the increasing partisan interventions in higher education offerings. These include attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, sociology, liberal arts, the selection of chief executives and the value of higher education as a whole. 

These unfortunate efforts decrease the legitimacy of genuine attempts to control college costs, increase access and improve the quality of public higher education in a state, including through efforts to merge institutions. 

Having led various consolidation efforts in the public sector, including in hospitals and higher education, I continue to have conversations with state and system leaders. These discussions reveal several important factors that help determine the success or failure of statewide consolidation efforts. 

The vision offered for the consolidation efforts: 

Vision statements should be as genuinely inclusive and as student-focused as possible. Statements primarily speaking to cost-savings or to “right-sizing” the enterprise will simply help create divisions between those supporting the value of higher education and those that are perceived not to. 

Additionally, does the vision statement speak to what will be gained by the higher education community? Will there be new investments, even if they are short term? Will there be efforts to improve support for students and their families? What is to be gained by the state higher education community in exchange for support of the merger proposals? 

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