A Consortium of Consortia … and Other Collaborative Struggles

By John O. Harney

Do more with less is a rarely questioned mantra in an age of austerity. But higher education consortia can turn that declaration on its head, allowing each partner higher education institution (HEI) to do more with more.

Consortia can offer ways to save money without killing jobs and valuable programs. The Higher Education Consortium of Central Massachusetts began getting Worcester colleges to tie into city bus routes—one of the sharing models made famous by the Five Colleges consortium of the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. In another cost-saving collaboration, the New Hampshire College and University Council brings together high school guidance counselors to research higher ed opportunities available around the Granite State.

If consortia can enrich services while saving money, does New England need a consortium of consortia?

The national Association of Collaborative Leadership has a New England section, which NEBHE has been pleased to be involved with informally. Inspired by this work, we’ve now listed on our website consortia around New England who do everything from cross-registration to shared purchasing to help HEIs save money without doing less.

With a little finessing, that listing could be become a critical interactive tool for New England HEIs to do more together. You want to find group purchasing partners? The enhanced site would show you which consortia do that and where. Cross registration of courses? Key in the info and find out who your partners could be.


Speaking of “consortia,” few are better known than the NCAA. The national athletics group just held its signature event, the Final Four national college basketball championship, in Indianapolis—not far from its $80 million headquarters nor from the Indiana statehouse where Gov. Mike Pence recently signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law could give businesses the right to refuse services to people they believe to be LGBT. Several commentators warned that such intolerance scares away creative talent. Others noted it’s just plain wrong. The states of Vermont and Connecticut joined organizations in essentially boycotting Indiana.

Writing in The Nation, sports columnist Dave Zirin urged the NCAA to ditch Indianapolis for its headquarters and the hoops. NCAA President Mark Emmert, once chancellor of the University of Connecticut, threatened to do just that, which Zirin noted, “would be a show of actual principle and courage from an organization that has for too long lacked either.” Zirin also quoted Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski before the big game saying, “I’m not going to talk about social issues or poverty or anything else. I’m just going to talk about this Duke basketball team.”

The games went off in Indy without a hitch. Duke won.


Off the court, New England HEIs “face a myriad of challenges and opportunities,” according to NEBHE, including “shrinking cohorts of high school graduates; recession-influenced changes to family and student views of higher education and its value; increased levels of tuition-discounting; continued upward pressures on operating costs; ongoing constraints on public investment in institutions and student aid; notable political pressure and mounting criticisms of tuition and fee levels; increased competition among independent, public and for-profit institutions, to name a few.”

Tuition freezes have held in some New England public systems. But the blessing for students and families can be a curse for the HEIs that are strapped for revenue to fund programs.

Small private colleges, meanwhile, face clear challenges in terms of shrinking student markets and cost pressures. Exhibit A is Sweet Briar, the western Virginia women’s college that will close its doors in May despite a seemingly robust endowment. Some say trustees saw the writing on the wall, given the shaky status of single-sex colleges. Others blame bad financial deals. Clearly, there could be more Sweet Briars down the road. (Yet in early April, College Choice called itself a “leading college search resource” as it ranked the struggling Sweet Briar among the best U.S. women’s colleges.)


Among other free throws …

Does anyone find it curious that New Hampshire has the highest tuition and highest student debt in the U.S., according to the Young Invincibles, but also the second-highest “completion rates of students who began at four-year public institutions,” according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research?


The talk of Boston hosting the Olympics in 2024 has led to visions of a boon for Boston-area colleges providing housing, sports venues and getting some global attention. It also brings me back to our Spring 1999 NEJHE (then called Connection) exploring regional policy priorities. We had worked with UMass Boston to survey New England movers and shakers and households on their opinions about public policy issues, regional economic prospects and opportunities for interstate collaboration.

Nearly two-thirds of the surveyed households favored “a regional effort to attract and host the Olympic games.” We also invited six forward-looking New England political figures to review the survey findings and take part in a mock debate under the rubric of the “Race for Governor of the State of New England.” My favorite part was the cover we commissioned with an old clunker under the Man of the Mountain. With apologies to New Hampshire, our “New England” license plate’s motto was “Live Regionally or Die.” With apologies to Abbey Road’s 28IF, our plate number was: “NE 6R1.”


I was recently emailed a news release from Wealth-X ranking of business schools in terms of number of billionaire alumni. There were 2,325 billionaires globally in 2014. American business schools led by Harvard dominated the Wealth-X list, taking seven of the top 10 spots. A more interesting measure would look at how many enrolled as low-income students and later became billionaires … if any.


In New England, Connecticut’s high educational attainment comes with wide disparity based on race and income. Aims McGuinness of the Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems pondered whether it could lead to “another Ferguson.”


John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.

“The View from Andrew’s Room Collage Series #4” by Montserrat College professor Timothy Harney.






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