In November of 2016 the Board of Trustees of the Vermont State College system voted to merge two public colleges, Lyndon State College and Johnson State College, into a single school: Northern Vermont University. The merger will take effect on July 1, 2018.

This is not the first time I have read about public colleges agreeing to be merged. For example, Albany State University and Darton State College, both in Georgia, agreed to merge in 2015. This merger involved nearly 9,000 students at two schools that are less than 15 minutes apart, located in the same town. The merger in Vermont will involve around 2,800. The two Vermont public colleges are also slightly more than an hour apart by car. That makes things more difficult.

Both Lyndon State College and Johnson State College currently award undergraduate and graduate degrees, although Johnson State has marketed itself as a “Vermont’s public liberal arts college” and is a member of the national Counsel of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC). It is also the older of the two schools; it was founded in 1823 while Lyndon State College was founded in 1911.

Neither of these public colleges is exceptionally selective. Both enroll mainly Vermont residents, although Johnson State also has distance learning programs. The president of Johnson State College will lead the new combined university. While it has not been reported, such a merger would mean that the new school would have a single faculty and administration. However, there are plans for each school to have their own intercollegiate athletic identity.

A merged public university may reduce costs for a senior-level administration as well as academic department heads. It may also open up academic programs that were available on only one of the campuses to students at the other. Lyndon State offers Atmospheric Sciences/Meteorology and Electronic Journalism Arts, which Johnson State does not and advertises the recreational setting of the campus. Johnson State prides itself on high-impact learning practices that complement classroom instruction with independent research, internships, civic engagement and study abroad. It advertises its signature programs as being in the arts, environmental and health sciences, and education.

But it is not possible for a high school junior in Vermont or a neighboring state to know which academic programs will be offered where, unless past commitments to labs and facilities dictate that a program— Atmospheric Sciences/Meteorology being a good example—stays where it is. The faculty might be able to teach the introductory required courses on both campuses then ask declared majors to move to where the facilities are. This is easier stated than done. There are distinct majors at Johnson State where there is no similar major on Lyndon State’s list and vice versa.

Given the decision to appoint the president of Johnson State as the leader of Northern Vermont University, and that Johnson State is the more mature school, I would presume that the merged public university will have Johnson State’s First Year Experience for new first-year students as well as their General Education Requirements. Johnson State also developed an Exploratory Program, common for liberal arts colleges, which could be an asset in working with undecided students in a larger university, provided it could be taught to the academic advising professionals who already work in at Lyndon.

If one school had considerably more students than the other, or had land that could either be developed or sold, it would have been easier for the Board of Trustees of the Vermont State College system to close one campus and transfer the students and the academic programs to the other. My comments as to how this merger might work are only guesses. But I hope that the leaders of Northern Vermont University have this all figured out by the kick off for the Fall, 2017 admissions cycle. The university administration cannot afford to leave prospective students and their parents confused.

For more information on how to consider and compare public liberal arts colleges, and other schools, please contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com

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