With 35 colleges and more than 150,000 students within Greater Boston, the City has long been a hub for Higher Education. As a result, many professionals, business executives and political leaders have strong ties to Boston thanks to the education that they received here. However, times are changing and certain factors including evolving workforce needs, increased high school graduation rates and increased competition among colleges and universities have left some institutions struggling to keep up.
Mergers between colleges is a trend that has been gaining momentum nationally – the number of mergers between academic institutions has nearly doubled from 12 during 2000 to 2010 to 22 in the last seven years alone. While Boston is no stranger to mergers, mergers in Higher Ed is new territory for many. So what is the driving force behind this shift? The Boston Globe cites real estate and money. As academic institutions look for alternative solutions to remain relevant and solvent, mergers could be a natural fit.
Walking a tight rope between educating students and maintaining their bottom line was evident during the recent talks between Boston University and Wheelock College. As these schools wade into new waters to stay competitive, it is important that they have strong communications plans in place to navigate these changes internally and externally. For students, parents, alumni, faculty, employees, donors, community members and other external stakeholders – there is tremendous pride and strong emotional ties to these institutions.
From a communications perspective, it is important that these audiences are taken into consideration well in advance of a potential merger going public. Although there are several benefits to convey around mergers – combined resources would enable smaller cash strapped institutions to offer more majors and increase research funding while designing programs to be better suited to the needs of the changing labor market – these changes could also dramatically alienate these important constituents. In particular, it is critical that any communications address concerns of alumni – notably what a merger would mean to them and the value of their degrees.
As Higher Ed institutions consider merging to gain a stronger foothold in the ultra-competitive Boston market, they must keep an open line of communication to ensure that a strong connection remains between the institution and its critical stakeholders.