Anthony Hennen of the Martin Center probes higher education developments in a neighboring state.

As the cost of college creeps up and more small colleges close, consolidation has become a lifeline of last resort. To survive, dozens of small institutions have either merged or have been absorbed into larger ones. That way, the threat (usually financial) disappears and students are assured the larger institution is stable.

But these mergers and eleventh-hour survival moves have another benefit: consolidating campuses and university services can save a college money and improve student outcomes. Even for state college systems in relatively good financial shape, consolidation could make them fiscally leaner, help students learn more, and improve graduation rates.

To do it right, college leaders should consider the example of the University System of Georgia.

In a review of the system’s five mergers that occurred from 2013 to 2018, Lauren Russell of Dartmouth College’s Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences found that “Consolidation increases retention rates and the fraction of students graduating on-time with four-year degrees.”

A big reason why is that consolidation shifts spending to academic support services like tutoring and advising, which, Russell noted, helps students complete their degree. “Consolidations were beneficial for students and most likely reflect productivity improvements realized at the affected campuses,” Russell wrote. While she found that the data were inconclusive about how consolidations affected instructional spending overall, spending on academic support went up. “USG saved on student services in order to invest more in academic support,” she wrote.