A Review of: Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities: New Strategies for Higher Education Leaders

May 16, 2019
  • AACRAO Publications
  • book review

Martin, J., J. E. Samels, and Associates. 2017.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 255 PP.

Reviewed by Matthew Fifolt, Ph.D.


Based on decades of research on trends in U.S. higher education, Martin, Samels, and colleagues articulate the conditions for and consequences of new organizational structures and configurations in Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities. The authors acknowledge that institutions increasingly have been forced to close their doors due to financial exigency; however, they identify “a growing number of institutions, many entrepreneurial, now planning intentional forms of alliance and partnership” (3). Specifically, Martin and Samels consider consolidations, alliances, affiliations, partnerships, co-ventures, and consortia as viable alternatives to full institutional mergers or closures.

Martin, Samels, and 20 colleagues present Collaborating Colleges and Merging Universities as a collection of essays in five sections. Essays on partnerships, strategic alliances, and consortia comprise the middle sections of the book while essays on consolidations, mergers, and closures bookend the text. Collectively, the authors identify the drivers of institutional restructuring efforts as challenges that all colleges and universities now face regardless of institutional size and type: increased competition for students, reputation, and funding; declining revenues; escalating budgets; and growing governmental scrutiny (14).

Martin and Samels argue that bigger institutions that result from restructuring efforts are not necessarily better. “Academic quality,” they note, “should be the primary driver of change” (6), especially when academic leaders are able to identify mission complementarity rather than mission sameness between institutions (McGee 2015). The authors pose a thought-provoking question to frame their discussion: “Can we (higher education) change fast enough to survive but slow enough to do so wisely?” (13).

Chapter authors Samels and Martin define institutional mergers as the assimilation of two or more institutions in which the assets of one institution are assumed by the surviving institution (A + B = A+). Consolidation, on the other hand, occurs when two or more institutions are collapsed into one new college or university (A + B = C) (20). The authors differentiate these two processes from each other and observe that both have significant legal and financial ramifications. Despite providing operational definitions at the beginning of the book, the active forms of these terms are used throughout the text—including the book’s title—to describe multiple types of interactions among institutions; this frequently obfuscates their meaning.

Partnerships and Strategic Alliances

Authors of several of the book’s chapters describe various benefits of institutional partnerships and strategic alliances, including increased assets, expanded geographic footprint, and economies of scale. For example, Eibeck notes that partnerships can “bring together complementary assets, business models, and synergies that ultimately will allow institutional growth and, most important, well-educated, workforce-ready graduates” (65). Chapter author Tanner, however, suggests that the costs of coordinating joint operations or consolidated services may outweigh the value of the actual partnership.

He notes that while consolidation may provide an opportunity to rebalance and restructure programs and services, thus achieving greater economies of scale, poorly integrated systems may lead to stakeholder dissatisfaction. The “alluring efficiency gains of scale,” states Tanner, “may be thwarted by myriad micro-losses from awkward design, information overload, complexity, and ambiguity” (48). A successful partnership, he argues, “depends heavily on how the merged institution will reengineer itself…the structuring of interactions, communications, and logistics… (and) where it will find its inspiration and new identity” (48, 50).

Internal partnerships. Consistent with proposals advocated by Crow and Dabars (2015) to develop stronger internal partnerships among institutional divisions, departments, and programs, Zimpher describes collaborative efforts at The State University of New York (SUNY) to bring campus-driven projects to a system-level scale. She offers multiple examples to illustrate her notion of “system-ness,” including support for system-wide retention and completion initiatives and seamless transfer mechanisms across all 64 institutions in the SUNY system.

Zimpher concludes, “Perhaps more than other sectors, education is highly siloed, and college and university systems too often operate as islands when they could be sharing best practices and policies, resources, and services” (62). In another chapter, Rabinowitz and Stellar note that successful institutional partnerships, as described in the research literature, are characterized by collaborative histories, supportive infrastructures, committed leaders, and a deep appreciation for differences in institutional cultures.


In a unique example of cross-cutting educational co-ventures, Ender and Middleton describe an arrangement between Harper College, a large, well-established community college, and Roosevelt University, a full-service private institution, to streamline administrative processes and develop integrated disciplinary tracks. The authors state, “Designing our respective strategic plans, it was easy to see that we could accomplish more as partners than as competitors and especially in several disciplines that could boost the local economy” (105–06).

Furthermore, working with local school districts to increase the number of college-ready graduates, Harper College has made it possible for high school students to earn up to fifteen credit hours prior to graduation. Clear articulation agreements and curricular pathways at the postsecondary level ensure that coursework at all levels (school district, community college, university) is “sequential, collaborative, and increasingly challenging” (110).

Reiger and Freitag identify comparable co-ventures that connect higher education and industry through technology. In one example, they describe a co-venture between Arizona State University (ASU) and the Mayo Clinic in which ASU Online converted many of the Mayo Clinic’s didactic learning modules into a blended learning application through “interactive videos, quizzes, and exercises utilizing animation and simulation” (116). According to Reiger and Freitag, one of the reasons this co-venture was so successful was because each partner stayed within its own area of expertise to build something that neither could have on its own.

Competency-Based Education

Extending the conversation of institutional/corporate partnerships, LeBlanc and Clerkin describe a movement toward competency-based education (CBE) that allows students to progress toward degrees and credentials by demonstrating mastery of knowledge and skills at a high level. Framed within the context of College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, the authors suggest that partnerships and strategic alliances with industry can address both the supply and demand sides of the educational equation.

Through the model of CBE, LeBlanc and Clerkin describe multiple partnership opportunities that support affordable academic programming, workforce development, student outreach, and customized technology platforms. They also suggest that scalability and personalized learning through online delivery systems and data analytics support the competencies that society expects of educated citizens and well-prepared employees (127). The authors argue that higher education needs “partnerships and alliances that support…a plan for scale to attract new students and a broader concept of how our institutions can operate more effectively within local, national, and global networks” (135).

International Partnerships

Jackson and Larimore observe that U.S. higher education institutions continue to forge alliances and co-ventures with international partners to broaden academic markets and respond to the increasingly great needs of global markets. The authors state, “International experiences have significant positive benefits for students and their institutions as globalization continues to change the way the world connects and works” (137). Jackson and Larimore cite specific ways in which U.S. colleges and universities have viewed international partnerships as ways to develop talent by providing educational experiences (i.e., curricular practical training), recruiting international students from Pacific Rim nations, and opening branch campuses in countries in the Middle East and China.

Despite these advances, Jackson and Larimore and others note that expansion into some foreign countries may be difficult or impossible to replicate because many do not support key characteristics of the U.S. higher education system, such as academic freedom, democratic governance, and transparent financial systems (Ferrara 2015; Rhoads, Wang, Shi & Chang 2014). However, international expansion may be hampered by Trump administration policies and a renewed interest in nationalism, despite Jackson and Larimore’s predictions of increased international partnerships and co-ventures (Brune 2017).


While the vast majority of consortia in higher education focus on academic collaboration, DiChiara describes The Boston Consortium for Higher Education (TBC) as a collaborative effort among multiple institutions to reduce non-academic operating costs. TBC started by targeting such areas as purchasing, human resources, and issues related to environmental health and safety.

In addition to providing examples of past projects, the author articulates specific characteristics of successful consortia, including evenly distributed overhead dues, staged project costs, and pay-to-play opportunities that allow members to opt out of specific projects before assuming the full cost of implementation. In describing the development of the consortia, DiChiara states, “Dialogue leads to relationships, relationships lead to trust, and out of trust comes opportunity” (163).

Williams describes consortia of liberal arts institutions along a collaboration continuum that ranges from networking to coordination, cooperation, collaboration, and integration (175). He states, “For the liberal arts business model to be sustainable…collaborations will need to move more aggressively toward cost-reduction initiatives” (175). More broadly, Eibeck observes that new organizational structures “will be an important part of the spectrum of change and innovation that American higher education will adopt as it responds to changing student needs and expectations” (76).

Mergers and Closures

Describing institutional mergers, Pierce describes a quasi-consortium of five previously independent colleges and universities through the Community Solution Education System. This niche collaborative combines administrative functions like international services, legal affairs, admissions, and human resources in an effort to target adult students seeking to earn a professional degree or complete a bachelor’s degree. Hoyle highlights the development of “super nonprofits” as one of the many ways in which “American higher education will…reinvent itself to maintain its value in our business, civic, and cultural life” (208).

In addition to providing information about the challenges of closing an institution of higher education and doing so with respect and dignity, Hoyle encourages presidents, provosts, and trustees to take advantage of alternative arrangements while the window of opportunity is open. He states, “There is still time, even during an institution’s downward slide, to negotiate from a position of strength. If the board waits too long, however, the window will close” (206).


Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities is an interesting and engaging exploration of the state of higher education in the United States. One of the strengths of the book is its cross-referencing of material across chapters. While chapter authors may introduce a new concept, they consistently reference the chapter in which the idea is further developed by another author. This approach toward a unified voice reinforces the value of each concept while avoiding duplication. Chapter authors also use sidebars to illustrate points with real-world examples and recommendations and provide clear and compelling action steps for senior-level administrators to weigh various options for long-term institutional sustainability.

The authors also include a number of figures and visual representations in the chapters without referencing them in the text. While several of these figures are self-explanatory and/or complement the narrative, others seem arbitrary−or, worse, important but unexplained. Readers may be interested in reviewing the three appendices that Martin and Samels include; they highlight selected mergers and closures in higher education as well as partnerships, strategic alliances, consortia, and affiliations that were established between the years 2000 and 2016.

Given the current economic climate, public and private colleges are predicted to close at a rate of fifteen per year for the foreseeable future. Small institutions seem especially vulnerable to financial challenges as their fixed costs increase and are allocated across fewer students. In fact, Moody’s Investor Services recently downgraded a number of colleges’ financial standing, and in 2012 Bain & Company reported that one-third of colleges in the United States had “unworkable and unsustainable business models” (199). Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities thus may prove an important and timely resource for academic leaders considering new options for collaboration.


Brune, T. 2017, January 21. Analysis: President Trump launches a new era of nationalism [web log post]. Retrieved from: newsday.com/news/nation/analysis-president-trump-launches-a-new-era-of-nationalism-1.12991674

Crow, M. M., and W. B. Dabars. 2015. Designing the New American University. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ferrara, M. S. 2015. Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

McGee, J. 2015. Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rhoads, R., X. Wang, X. Shi, and Y. Chang. 2014. China’s Rising Research Universities: ANew Era of Global Ambition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Matthew Fifolt, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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