St. Ambrose, Mount Mercy explore course sharing with possible future combination

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St. Ambrose University President Amy Novak and Mount Mercy University President Todd Olson have signed a joint agreement to allow students to take certain courses from either university. (Photo courtesy of St. Ambrose University)
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By Brooklyn Draisey, Iowa Capital Dispatch

As the world of higher education weathers shifting enrollment, rising costs and increased questions about whether a traditional postsecondary education is worth the expense, two private universities are exploring a future where they can bring their Catholic missions together to thrive as a unit while still standing out on their own.

St. Ambrose University and Mount Mercy University have entered into a joint agreement to offer certain courses to students at both institutions, with a possible combination of the colleges being explored for the future.

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Starting this fall, undergraduate and graduate students will have access to classes at St. Ambrose and Mount Mercy, no matter which school they’re enrolled in, with in-person, hybrid and online options. St. Ambrose and Mount Mercy are located in Davenport and Cedar Rapids, respectively.

St. Ambrose president Amy Novak said faculty and provosts at the universities are still working to identify which courses will be available through this partnership with input from students.

Novak and Mount Mercy President Todd Olson said since announcing the news earlier this month they’ve received positive feedback from community members, business leaders and others.

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“Certainly, people have some questions about specifically how it might play out,” Olson said. “But what I’m hearing overwhelmingly is enthusiasm, a sense that this is the right move at a time of real change and turbulence in higher education and the people see that it will open up new opportunities.”

These new options could help students save time in completing their degrees, Olson said, and give adult learners more opportunities to attend or come back to school to gain new licensures and skills.

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A second agreement is also in the works, which would create seamless transitions between undergraduate and graduate programs for students encompassing 18 programs.

The schools are also exploring the possibility of combining in order to share resources and gain operational and administrative efficiencies, Novak said. According to information put out by Mount Mercy about the agreement and potential combination, if this were to occur, the two universities would still retain their campuses, names and other programs, operating as independent institutions.

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The universities are still looking into whether this would be viable, Novak said, but she hopes they’ll learn more over the summer.

“Ultimately, we just need to ensure that we’ve done our due diligence as it relates to the perceptions and the potential for how that combination might be able to work so it’s really in an early phase, but hopefully coming to a point in the near future of us discerning whether or not that can move forward,” Novak said.

According to financial and enrollment information made public by the universities, St. Ambrose saw a total enrollment of 2,706 in the 2023-2024 academic year and Mount Mercy reported 1,449 enrolled students. As of June 2023, St. Ambrose and Mount Mercy held endowments of $220 million and $39.3 million, respectively, both up around 40% over the past five years.  St. Ambrose has “low levels of long-term debt,” totaling less than 20% of the university’s total assets, and Mount Mercy held $12.9 million in debt as of June 2023, which falls below 15% of the university’s total assets and is less than 50% of its operating budget.

The future Olson said the universities are working to realize is one where both residential campuses are flourishing, still holding their own identities, athletic and extracurricular programs and maintaining their own communities. Together, however, they’ll be a sought-after provider of graduate and professional education, offering options for learners at all stages of life and expanding markets for employers in their areas.

All of this is being done with the goal of increasing accessibility and affordability for students, Novak said, which will hopefully attract more people wishing to enroll and provide the communities they serve with leaders in the workforce and other areas of life.

Many of the programs at Mount Mercy and St. Ambrose are more complimentary than in competition with one another, Novak said, especially in graduate studies. Being able to offer a large collective of academic pathways will show students that they can find a world-class education as well as opportunities outside the classroom while remaining in their comfort zone.

“It really gives them some of the big school opportunity in our intimate, personalized environment that we know strengthens their likelihood of persistence to graduation, allows them to engage with our community partners in a variety of internships and clinical experiences,” Novak said.

The path to this agreement and the future combination began over a year ago with a conversation between the university presidents about the state of Catholic higher education, which Olson said is facing the same challenges in a post-COVID-19 world as the rest of the industry, especially small, private colleges.

However, Catholic universities come with values that Olson said they want to establish a strong foundation for in the future. Students are taught that there is a commitment to the idea that higher education is for others as much as it is for themselves, and a commitment to service as part of that.

Novak said they don’t want to just have a “cafeteria slate of offerings” for students to peruse, but to develop an education that instills the knowledge and skills to be “morally centered and ethically clear” when making decisions in the world today.

“We both believe in that sort of unique power of Catholic higher education, and we want to see that strong and vibrant as we go forward,” Olson said. “We believe this model just strengthens both our institutions and strengthens opportunities for students to access that kind of values-based and also very practice-based and practical higher education.”

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