The institution of higher education has been a prominent one in America for decades. In 2013, 70% of adult Americans considered a college degree “very important”. For the longest time there was no better means to economic movement. It gave those a chance to move up in the world in a genuinely fair and merit-based system.
This is changing. The value of the college degree is falling, both in practice and in perception. Today, not just out of college, but 10 years later, one sixth of college grads earn less than their high school counterparts. Americans working low-skill jobs are moving into better positions, not through college, but online certificates.
The criteria of what matters and is valued is changing. And colleges are really starting to see the effects. Enrollment is shrinking, for both two and four year colleges, and COVID-19 and the pandemic only made the issue worse. Today, following the pandemic, colleges are experiencing heavy staffing issues. 50% of colleges are worried if they can even serve students properly at their current staffing levels.
In response the U.S government did invest a lot into higher education. $76 billion has been invested to help ensure colleges survive, but it’s still not enough. Today up to 500 colleges and universities are at risk of closure in the near future. Public colleges in particular are taking the heaviest enrollment declines.
While the upper echelon of prestigious and desired schools are doing fine. Smaller, less prestigious private schools are also seeing high enrollment declines. Community colleges are similarly losing their base. Although no schools are being shut down more than christian-affiliated colleges.
So what are these failing colleges meant to do? The larger declining trend is not something many individual colleges can help. The realistic answer is many are shutting down. Without an influx of new students, the funding will eventually dwindle down. Although there is one other option: college mergers.
Mergers see colleges consolidating on a local, national, international, or digital level. Most of these will exist on a local level, one campus physically expanding into another. Although digital acquisitions are becoming increasingly common. This can happen between two colleges, three, or a whole collection of colleges. For example, in 2022 Conneticuts community colleges plan to merge into one collective college with many campuses.
When it comes to mergers, the main benefit is hope and organization. Closed colleges tend to leave their students high and dry, completely stranded. At best there’s a program to help transfer the students elsewhere, but mergers do not have this problem. Mergers have an explicit path and set of resources for students. While it will never feel good to be in a closing or merging college, one is certainly preferable.
Unfortunately, there’s still a slew of negatives that accompany a merger. Mergers start to wear down the identity, voice, programs, and support of the merging college. In the process of acquisition, accommodations must be made. This means essential support programs, student organizations, and the general voice of students will be suppressed.
It’s a necessary evil, but still a hard pill to swallow. So what does the future hold for colleges in America? It’s ultimately hard to say. Although for the hundreds of colleges on the brink of closure, mergers may be the best option. Ensuring that colleges are strong and important can help to bring back their power in America. An educated country is never worse off than an uneducated one.