New Fund Will Help Colleges Consider Possible Collaborations, Mergers

March 19, 2021

The following article is from Forbes

A new fund, the Transformational Partnerships Fund (TPF), launched this week with support from several funding entities, will award grants for colleges and universities to explore various types of inter-institutional partnerships, collaborations, and even mergers. The intent is to support “student-centric partnerships and collaborations” that could change how they operate and “enhance their ability to provide reliable, high-quality educational opportunities for students.”

The new fund was established by ECMC Foundation and SeaChange Capital Partners, Ascendium Education Group and The Kresge Foundation. It also will receive guidance from a group of advisors who have extensive experience in higher education administration, accreditation, and finance.

The need for the fund comes from a recognition of several factors that colleges and university across the country have been grappling with for years and that have caused them revenue woes, enrollment losses, and budgetary pressures. The coronavirus pandemic has only intensified these pressures. Institutions serving minority students and students from low-income backgrounds have been hit particularly hard and providing these institutions the resources to explore collaborative arrangements is a focus of the initiative.

“Institutions of higher education face a complex set of financial, technological, political, social and demographic challenges that have intensified significantly over the last decade,” said Lynn Alvarez, ECMC Foundation’s vice president of programs and strategy, in the release that announced the fund. “Focusing on revenue and enrollment fails to address the fundamental changes required to transform educational business models in ways that will sustainably drive student success and social mobility. One way to achieve greater organizational effectiveness without losing sight of student needs is to enter into transformational partnerships with other institutions.”

The fund has initial budget of $2.5 million and will be able to award grants of up to $100,000 per partnership. The funds can be used to hire experts in law, finance, governance, fundraising, human resources, or other related fields. TPF will also give free access to resources collected from its advisors, its network, and other third-parties. Institutions that receive grant funding for their explorations are promised that their work will remain confidential.

It is anticipated that as many as 20 pairs of institutions will be funded over TPF’s first three years, but if the demand is there, more partnership “explorations” could be supported.

To qualify for support from TPF, one or more of the participating institutions must serve a student population that is at least 25% persons of color and/or where 40% meet the financial criteria for Pell eligibility. Partnerships should also be able to show that a collaboration of some sort would “be expected to produce materially better academic outcomes for students attending one or more of the institutions.”

Over the past year, colleges and universities have seen an overall enrollment decline of more than half a million students, with the losses most severe at community colleges and among traditionally underserved students. The TPF is intended to help colleges that are struggling financially or losing enrollment explore options for operating differently, often through joining forces with another institution.

“Many institutions, especially those serving high numbers of students of color or Pell grant recipients, faced stiff financial challenges before COVID, which has only exacerbated these issues,” said Bill Moses, Kresge’s managing director, Education Program. “We hope TPF will allow colleges to find new ways to navigate these difficult times to ensure their long-term sustainability and missions on behalf of students.”

There are several options that the fund might facilitate among partnering institutions. Examples include:

  • combination of administrative positions across campuses;
  • joint appointment of faculty to offer courses at partnering institutions;
  • sharing facilities and infrastructure;
  • consolidation of business and student services;
  • collaborative and joint degree programs;
  • mergers or partial mergers

As obvious as those kinds of arrangement might be, they often run into multiple obstacles in higher education. Faculty resist top-down changes, alumni cling to traditions, students grow anxious about their standing, and local communities protect the economic interests of being home to a college. As a result, administrators become highly reluctant to explore collaborative options they know can stir intense emotions, wild rumors and strong objections.

The TPF promises funding for leaders of eligible institutions to consider new, possibly bolder, strategies for managing financial difficulties and gaining long-term stability. It may just be the nudge they need. Certainly, the assurance of confidentiality is an important element, albeit one that might be difficult to maintain in practice. Additional information about the program is available at www.higheredpartnerships.org


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