While the courtship between Cleveland State University and Notre Dame College remains uncertain, mergers involving small private colleges  – while still relatively uncommon – are happening more frequently nationwide

Cleveland State acknowledged last month that the university has discussed “potentially absorbing” Notre Dame College, which framed it as an opportunity for a “partnership.” 

Cleveland State President Laura Bloomberg pointed to two New Jersey institutions for a potential roadmap for how colleges can merge. During a faculty senate meeting Jan. 31, Bloomberg said Bloomfield College and Montclair State University can be a model of “what works, what doesn’t, when do you do it, when don’t you [do it].”  

Bloomberg also added that this might not be the only time Cleveland State could think about talking with a small private college in Northeast Ohio “that might be struggling, or thinking about closing, or thinking about whether they can be acquired.”  

To get a view of what is involved in a merger and its impact on students, Signal Cleveland recently talked with Marcheta Evans, chancellor at Bloomfield College of Montclair State, and Montclair State President Jonathan Koppell to learn more about what their process looked like. 

The former small college’s new official name is Bloomfield College of Montclair State University. 

“A lot of lessons learned,” Evans said of their journey. “From accrediting, [to the] NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), to the legal part of it with the state, private to public. But it’s been an adventure, to say the least.” 

Enrollment declines trigger merger talk 

It’s important to point out that the talks in New Jersey began quite differently than those between Cleveland State and Notre Dame. 

Bloomfield, like other small private colleges across the country, was facing enrollment and financial struggles amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. After assessing the college’s future, then-Bloomfield president Evans put the college on the market in October of 2021

“Seeking major institutional and financial support to continue its critical mission,” read the headline on Bloomfield’s press release. That mission, it said, is to create “educational pathways that are often not otherwise available for minority and low-income students.” 

More than 30 institutions expressed interest, according to Evans. Eight submitted proposals, with Bloomfield eventually moving to partner with the neighbor eight minutes down the road: Montclair State. 

“It wasn’t just a matter of survival,” said Evans. “It was a matter of us transforming and thriving as an institution with this new partnership.” 

Koppell characterized Evans’ decision to do this as one with “unusual boldness.” 

Bloomfield, Montclair State serve similar students

Like Notre Dame and Cleveland State, both of the institutions in the Garden State serve diverse groups of students. 

About half of Bloomfield’s 1,150 undergraduates were Black in fall 2022, with another third identifying as Hispanic. Nearly 75% of its students receive Pell Grants, federal funding earmarked to help low-income students pay for college. 

Montclair State officials say their university serves more Hispanic students than any other college in New Jersey. Its total enrollment in fall 2022 came in at around 22,000 students. 

The missions between the two institutions aligned, according to Koppell.  

“People said at various times, like, ‘oh, is this an enrollment play?’ No,” he said. “There are many easier, less complex ways to grow enrollment that have nothing to do with the partnership, and, ultimately, the merger that we entered into.” 

Montclair State University students talk on the New Jersey campus in this undated file photo. Credit: Montclair State University

Mergers impact communities’ taxes, jobs

Colleges and universities have deep roots in their communities, acting as landowners, employers, and economic drivers. As result, a merger, then, can have all kinds of impacts on a community

It’s helpful, Koppell pointed out, to view the merger through the lens of the Ghost of Christmas Future from the Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.”  

“If Bloomfield College had closed, it would have been significant in terms of employment and sales tax revenue,” he said. “An important piece of property in the community of Bloomfield all of a sudden would have been silent.”

Now, a tall task officials are facing includes looking at how to best utilize two campuses. As Inside Higher Ed pointed out last fall, property in New Jersey is expensive. The merger, among other things, allowed Montclair State to expand its geographical footprint as well as its real estate portfolio.   

Looking ahead, Koppell could see some of Montclair State’s graduate offerings eventually being housed on the Bloomfield campus. Montclair State’s performing arts program could make use of a theater at Bloomfield, he said, adding that it could give both an economic and cultural boost to local residents and their economies. 

How mergers shape college athletics   

Here in Cleveland, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Notre Dame and Cleveland State talks are related to the future of sports teams. About 70% of Notre Dame’s students are athletes.

Cleveland State sports are in the NCAA’s Division I. Notre Dame is a Division II school.  

For at least the remainder of this academic year, the New Jersey colleges are keeping Bloomfield’s Division II and Montclair State’s Division III teams and facilities separate.

Bloomfield has already suspended a few of its athletics teams due to low participation. The bowling team, Evans said, was having to recruit members from the basketball team. Remaining teams include men’s basketball, baseball and soccer, along with women’s softball and an e-sports team. 

“With the merger, I think a lot of student-athletes decided not to pursue coming to Bloomfield because we’re still trying to figure out the next steps,” said Evans. 

Montclair State, Bloomfield look to be national model

The merger’s only about eight months in. Officials are calling it the integration phase. There are all kinds of things — ranging from the future of academic programs to figuring out what to do with two school mascots (Koppell said Montclair State is embracing Deacon the Bloomfield Bear, in case you’re wondering) – that still need to be figured out. 

Koppell said they’re still working on logistics, including how to integrate institutions with two different systems for getting things done. He called it a “significant institutional lift.” 

Evans said she’s talked with lots of people who are interested in how this merger is working. They want to know “the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.

When asked if she’s spoken with anyone at Cleveland State, she said she has signed legal documents prohibiting her from disclosing explicit conversations. 

Ultimately, though, Bloomfield and Montclair State hope to be a national example, Koppell said, and not strictly as a lesson to be explicitly replicated. 

“But also a model that says, ‘that looks pretty hard, we can’t do what they’re doing,’ or ‘the circumstances we face are different than the circumstances they faced, so that doesn’t say we need to do the same thing,’ he said. “And that’s just as important.”

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.