Innovation in Integration for Pine Manor College and Boston College:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 104 with Guest Tom O'Reilly

Table of Contents

Innovation in Integration for Pine Manor and Boston College

Pine Manor College created innovation in integration with Boston College two years ago. Instead of pushing two institutions together, leaders figured out how they could grow together. Boston College is a well-established research institution while Pine Manor College serves a different demographic of first-generation, college-capable students.

The institutions’ leaders wanted to identify how they could put together a future that made sense for both institutions. To do that required thinking about all the pieces of the integration in order to have success for the whole of all stakeholders.

Student Demographics, Financial Stability, and Strengthening the Institution’s Mission

Pine Manor College has a long history of serving first-generation students. Eighty-five percent of the college’s students are students of color, 84% are the first in their family to attend college, 80% are Pell Grant-eligible, and 50% are multi-lingual. This student was very different from the traditional Boston College student. Therefore, it was important to consider how to create something good from bringing these two institutions together.

When O’Reilly joined Pine Manor College, the institution was financially fragile. Prior to O’Reilly’s arrival, the college had 20 years of losses, losing up to $4 million a year.

However, the college’s mission of serving first-generation college students who were in the low-income demographic was very important to the College’s mission. The College’s efforts needed to be accelerated, expanded, and magnified. O’Reilly was charged with making changes in the financial situation while keeping the focus on the institutional mission.

The college looked at what it was good at, which was serving this demographic. To that end, the leaders started peeling away things that would be part of a traditional college, but that wasn’t focused on serving this group of students. Pine Manor wanted to invest in its students, who had significant traits that would help them be successful as employees, productive citizens, and community members.

O’Reilly, who has a business background, focused on determining other revenue sources that could be generated. Initially, the focus was on auxiliary services to ensure the college remained affordable. College leaders repositioned the institution’s portfolio of revenues; 53% of revenues were coming from auxiliary services that were funding the college and covering the cost for students to attend.

Plan A and Plan B for Successful Merger Outcomes

When COVID caused the auxiliary services to shut down, college leaders had to reconsider their plans. The college knew that their original approach was risky and had developed both a Plan A and Plan B that was widely discussed.

Plan A was to make Pine Manor College the best college to attend for the first-generation low-income student so that students would have the best outcomes. The college was initially near the national average for graduation rate and grew it to slightly four times above the national average. Because the college was small, it was able to make significant progress quickly. Additionally, graduates were getting a job in their fields within six months of graduation or were going on to advanced studies.

Plan B focused on emerging disruptors. If leaders believe in the institution’s students, faculty and staff, there needs to be a Plan B. This is especially true for a financially fragile institution because leaders don’t want these individuals to be stuck. The board, the community, and O’Reilly had discussions about what the appropriate actions would be if something unfortunate were to happen, and identified three areas:

  • Take care of students
  • Take care of the institution’s people
  • Take care of the institution’s mission and legacy

The leaders decided that if they could determine what that would look like, they would be doing the right thing if something went wrong.

Institutional Alignment for Holistic Integration

The first step involved Pine Manor College becoming financially stable. They reduced their outstanding debt and increased their endowment.

Additionally, the College’s fundraising capabilities improved – going from nearly $0 to receiving multi-million dollars in donations a year – because people were interested in what the institution was doing. At the same time, the College strengthened its brand and what it was known for— educating first-generation students. People wanted to be part of this effort because they realized it was important and because of Pine Manor College’s leadership status in this market.

This effort took two years to get everyone on track and focused on what is important. The leadership, faculty, and staff had to delve into what it meant to serve the specific student population who enrolls at Pine Manor College. This included making sure that the institution didn’t operate as a “traditional” college in the way it handled things.

To serve first-generation students, the institution’s leaders, faculty, and staff needed to realize that these students’ parents were not going to be familiar with higher education and could be uncomfortable with financial aid forms, higher education terminology and letting their children make their own decisions. Pine Manor College’s leaders realized that it needed to determine how to address these issues to help students succeed.

One step that Pine Manor College took was to change the job description for everyone at the college. The first line of every job description reads, “The purpose of this position is to grow the graduation rate.” This statement focuses everyone’s efforts on the students instead of trying to serve as the sage on the stage. It also removes artificial barriers so the college can embrace its mission of teaching and learning.

This dramatically changed things at the College. For example, the financial aid department staff transitioned to using laptops so they wouldn’t be office-bound, allowing department staff to go where students were or contact them outside of office hours while the staff was at home. They also put a visual thermometer in the student center to increase awareness of financial aid since these students often needed monetary assistance. The thermometer’s measure went up until a 100% completion rate was reached.

Additionally, the College had a long history of focusing on student success in the classroom, but Pine Manor College went even further by defining what student success means. While many employees had different responses, the overarching answer came down to whether students received a degree and whether they are prepared to succeed professionally or as they pursue further education.

This definition led to further analysis on desired student outcomes and how well students’ actual education was aligned with them. This approach didn’t discount rigor but did require faculty to teach and use good pedagogy to get students across the line.

To move forward, it was important that everyone respected what others brought to the table. This involves doing your homework and listening. It’s important to realize that faculty are brilliant, passionate, competent, and care about students. Pine Manor College invited faculty to join in a common mission with the rest of the college in what it was trying to accomplish. This led to a conversation about faculty responsibility and accountability, which required faculty to analyze why students might not be successful in learning key competencies.

This conversation also extended to the admissions office which needed to see if they were admitting students who had college readiness and were capable. This resulted in the creation of an admissions rubric that included character, persistence, and aspiration, as well as academic readiness. This effort by the admissions office also made the faculty feel supported and led to the creation of the college’s student success initiative. This initiative took a holistic approach by providing every student with a “success coach” who offered both academic and life support.

Through analyzing what a college of its size needed, leaders were able to make decisions about what was appropriate for the institution. For example, Pine Manor College at one point had three senior financial people — a CFO, a comptroller, and a director of finance — even though the institution is only a $20 million enterprise. Leaders realized that this structure was not appropriate for Pine Manor College because this caused so many accounting structures that made it difficult to determine if the institution was succeeding.

Strategic Planning and Successful Integration

Both strategic planning and implementation are vitally important when integrating two institutions of higher learning. Often, institutions get caught up in the importance of doing “big things.” The reality is that without doing the small things right, the institution will never get to the big things because the small things will trip up the institution. Therefore, it’s important for institutions to take a thorough look at their inner workings and deal with the small headaches to help employees manage areas that may trip them up. Once the headaches are gone, everyone is freed up to focus and work on the big things.

Additionally, a listening tour is an important part of the strategic planning process because it shows everyone that they have value. It’s important to listen to everyone, including the community around the college as well as the community that sends students to the college.

When the COVID-19 pandemic came, Pine Manor College had already built relationships so that institutions had a high level of familiarity about who the college was and what it did. Realizing that the college needed to move to Plan B, the next question involved determining who could help Pine Manor College deliver on its three objectives: taking care of its students, taking care of its people, and taking care of its mission and legacy.

Pine Manor College wasn’t sure that a merger was the way it wanted to go. College leaders also considered selling all the assets so it could become a large foundation that could fund these types of efforts, namely scholarships and programs for first-generation students, in an efficient way. Another option was partnering with an institution.

The partnership with Boston College developed because of a little luck and institutional desire. Boston College, which is located near Pine Manor College, had begun as an institution that served the children of immigrants. Boston College created a virtuous cycle that has helped successive generations thrive. This also has created a cycle where Boston College graduates provide financial support to the institution that has created a strong endowment.

When discussions began, Pine Manor College had developed a brand of excellence for the student demographic the college served. Boston College wanted to return to its roots and become more deeply involved in this area—and had enormous resources to do this. Leaders then faced creating the next steps. A merger was problematic because the students at each institution were very different.

Innovation in Integration Creates Pipelines for Student Success

The leaders agreed to a two-year teach-out where Pine Manor College students who wanted to remain at the college and finish their education in the time remaining could do so. Students also had the opportunity to transfer to Boston College’s Woods College, which is a continuing education program, to earn a Boston College degree. Students also had an option to transfer to one of five other partner colleges that Pine Manor College had built relationships with; in this case, Boston College would ensure the same net cost for students.

This agreement also provided support to Pine Manor College’s people. The Pine Manor College faculty and staff had the opportunity to do the teach-out, which offered an extended period where they knew what was going to happen. They also had an alternative of finding a position at Boston College. However, if Boston College didn’t have a position that was a good fit for their skillset, Pine Manor College’s faculty and staff received a very extensive severance package.

In addressing the area of mission and legacy, leaders looked at how they could ensure that Pine Manor College’s mission and legacy were aligned with Boston College’s. The leaders agreed to create the Pine Manor Institute for Student Success, which recognizes that beginning the higher education pipeline during a student’s senior year in high school was not enough support to generate opportunities for first-generation students to succeed. Instead, leaders decided to create a program that would start at eighth grade and continue through 12th grade in the cohort of students’ own schools.

The program would include tutoring, emotional and social support that focuses on preparing students to be ready for a Boston College experience. Beyond that, students would get a success coach throughout college, which is built based on the Pine Manor College model. Additionally, these students get two more years of support after they graduate in areas that first-generation students need assistance with after college, including navigational, budgeting, and networking skills.

In total, this creates 10 years of support for this cohort of students. Boston College has contributed serious resources behind this; the initial endowment was $50 million, which has now doubled.

On top of the expanded cohort program, Boston College has decided to make this effort an important part of its mission. They decided to create a two-year residential college on the Pine Manor College campus, which will be named Messina College. This creates a safe space for first-generation college students to separate from many of the things that hold them back academically. Additionally, this builds on Pine Manor College’s findings that it takes two years for students to be college-ready and capable.

Ultimately, the integration creates two pipelines of access to higher education for underrepresented groups of students. This allows Pine Manor College to take care of its students while also taking care of its people and its mission. It was overwhelmingly and almost unanimously supported by the Pine Manor College and Boston College communities, as well as the Boston-area community.

Furthermore, this integration will not cost the student anything. The perspective of Pine Manor College and Boston College is that this student demographic needs and deserves these resources because they haven’t received this type of investment from society, which would level the playing field.

The shared vision, mission, and resources are critical for helping this effort succeed. Now the institutions need to do the work. While there may be missteps, both institutions have had successes—and now want to bring forward the best of what they’ve learned together through the Pine Manor Institute for Student Success at Boston College.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • It’s important to have a Plan A and a Plan B when integrating institutions. Unless the institution is an extraordinarily well-endowed college with high brand recognition, there will be challenges down the road. These challenges can be resources, changes in life, and other types of disruptors—and in the future, they are going to happen more often. By having developed a vision (Plan A) as well as a plan for what will happen if the vision doesn’t work (Plan B), the institution can be prepared for any integration challenges that arise.
  • In developing programs, it’s important to learn directly from the stakeholders, whether that’s the students, community, or front-line employees. This helps the institutional team reframe what they do. College leaders should visit high schools and meet with students and parents to hear what they are saying.
  • Always lead with mission and values. Many colleges’ mission statements sound the same. It’s very important for leaders to define what the institution really does and who they’re doing it for. For instance, do you have real relationships with the community that connects each group’s impact?


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting, for higher ed institutions.

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