The University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut's most populous city, announced Thursday it is merging with Marlboro College, a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont.
Leaders of both schools said they plan to join forces beginning spring of 2020, describing the move as a way to create a sustainable future for New England liberal arts colleges while expanding educational opportunities for students.
Marlboro College will be called the Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Bridgeport. The University of Bridgeport's name will not change.
"This gives us an amazing opportunity to create perhaps a whole new way of thinking about education for our undergraduate students," said Laura Skandera Trombley, president of the 5,000-student University of Bridgeport, which offers degrees in engineering, business, education and the arts and sciences.
Marlboro College, founded in 1946, allows students to craft a customized plan of education, culminating in a Bachelor of Arts degree. It has about 150 students.
The institutions are very different, both academically and geographically. But school officials described the merger as a win-win opportunity for both colleges.
"It links our beautiful campuses in the Green Mountains and on Long Island Sound in innovative ways that will expand educational opportunities for all of our students, better preparing them for meaningful work and lives of purpose," said Kevin Quigley, president of Marlboro College.
Plans call for students taking courses on both campuses, which are roughly two hours apart. Marlboro College students will also have the ability to complete advanced degrees at the University of Bridgeport.
Plans are also under consideration to have combined classes and other learning opportunities between the two campuses, such as a first-year seminar for University of Bridgeport students at the Vermont campus.
Financially, the goal is to save money through efficiency and also boost enrollment at Marlboro College, which approached the University of Bridgeport about a possible merger this year.
It's the latest small New England liberal arts college to join forces with a larger school to survive. Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which has about 1,100 students, considered merging with another institution amid financial uncertainty. That move created an uproar among alumni, and the school is now working to improve its finances by raising $100 million over five years to remain independent.
Federal data shows Marlboro's enrollment had dropped 34% since 2010 and its tuition revenue 50%. Federal data shows that the University of Bridgeport, established in 1927, experienced 5% enrollment growth and 31% tuition revenue growth during the same span of time.
Trombley credited officials at Marlboro with looking for a partner early on, before the school faced financial difficulties, calling it an "elaborate process."
"They were very proactive and I think very strategic because they were, and still are, in a sound financial position. But they were looking into the future," she said, adding how she hopes this merger could set an example for other institutions in a time of rapid change and stiff competition in higher education.
"I've become really concerned about the disappearance of wonderful liberal arts colleges and the diminishment of the arts and sciences," she said. "Kudos to us for drawing a line in the sand and saying we're not going to let that happen."
Many small liberal arts colleges in New England with small endowments have struggled financially since the economic recession of 2008. Trombley noted that more prospective students are looking to go to college closer to urban centers, rather than rural campuses.
AP Education Writer Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.