People wearing caps and gowns can be seen.

Mergers and acquisitions in higher education should center student interests above all else. When colleges combine, students are impacted in profound and multi-faceted ways, from academics to student life to support services. Their voices must drive any consolidation.

Proponents argue mergers strengthen institutions by pooling resources, reducing duplication, achieving scale, and improving financial sustainability. However, the student experience is not so easily quantified or streamlined. Valuable student niches could be lost, support networks disrupted, and unique school identities and traditions overshadowed by institutional branding.

essential is considering how a combined college will meet diverse student needs, from first-generation learners to veterans to students of color. Different campuses offer different strengths, so a merger must work to preserve what matters most to the students and communities they serve. This includes academic programs, student support services, special resources, campus events, sports teams, place-based intimacy, and more.

Student input should be actively sought at every stage of the merger process to understand concerns, priorities, and “deal-breaker” issues important for different groups. Surveys, focus groups, town halls, and direct outreach to student leaders can provide perspectives to guide key decisions. Students are also positioned to consider alternatives that could address problems without requiring consolidation.

Once merged, students must have a say in shaping their new college experience. Establish mechanisms for ongoing student feedback, input, and even protest when expectations are not being met. Provide students seats at merger transition tables and commit to responsiveness. Tap into student energy and ideas to improve the new institution and culture.

Strong student advocacy groups can help give student voices extra weight even when marginalized in discussions. Their input is essential to building an institutional culture that genuinely values students first and foremost as the primary stakeholders in the college’s mission and future success.

With eyes on students, every merger holds the promise of expanding opportunity or, conversely, causing harm. By making student interests and well-being the priority at every turn, higher education leaders can realize the former while avoiding the latter. Putting students first is how colleges best fulfill their responsibility to nurture talent, cultivate communities, and advance society as a whole through the work of higher education. When it comes to mergers, students deserve nothing less.

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