The campus will become Mills College at Northeastern University when the merger is finalized this summer. Credit: Amir Aziz

For many Mills College students, a big part of the 170-year-old university’s appeal is the range of specialized degrees it offers, especially in arts and education. But when the Oakland school merges with Northeastern University in just a few months, some of those unique programs will disappear—leaving students to wonder whether their credits will transfer, whether they should pursue a different degree, or find a new college altogether. 

“Everything is so up in the air, and students have no idea what they’re doing,” said Joya Saxena, a sophomore majoring in education.

Saxena and other Mills students weren’t informed of their options until the first week of classes in January. Several of the school’s undergraduate majors, like biology, chemistry, economics, and computer science, will continue to be majors after the merger. But many of the school’s signature arts, humanities, and education-oriented majors, like dance, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and child development, aren’t offered at Northeastern. 

As a result, many students will need to adjust their academic plans—and they’ve been given little time to figure it all out. 

On January 21, undergraduate students received a letter from the college saying they had one week to decide whether they’d be continuing on at Mills College at Northeastern University, the new name for the campus once the merger is complete. Those who chose to stay would need to adjust their degree choice, if it wasn’t one offered by Northeastern.

Saxena, who is choosing to transfer, wishes college officials had told students sooner that they may not be able to continue with their chosen major. “They’re giving us a week to make a life-altering decision,” she said.

Since Saxena’s education major isn’t offered at Northeastern, she was recommended a major in communications instead, along with the university’s PlusOne program, which gives students the option of pursuing a master of arts in teaching while completing their undergraduate courses. Saxena, who went to high school in San Diego, said the social justice-themed mission of the women’s college made Mills the perfect fit for her. But now, she’s set on transferring. 

“Communications is an entirely different major. Am I going to learn everything I need to learn to prepare me for a career in education? Probably not,” Saxena said. “Mills could have given us more time to think about what we want to do.” 

College transfer applications are typically due between fall and January for the following academic year, so for many students it was already too late to apply elsewhere. Those who did make the deadlines haven’t learned yet where they’ve been admitted. 

Abigail Selby was in the process of transferring to Mills from Santa Rosa Junior College last year when Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman announced that the school would stop admitting students beyond the fall. The announcement assured students that they’d be able to receive their degrees through 2023, which was Selby’s anticipated graduation year. 

“I was like, ‘Okay, I have nothing to worry about then. I’ll be able to fly under the radar of all this happening,’” Selby said.

Now, she’s unsure about what path she’ll take. Selby is majoring in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Northeastern only offers a minor in creative writing, which means she’d be taking fewer courses on the subject.

Sima Misra, a graduate student at Mills, is in a similar situation. After working at The Berkeley School for 15 years, Misra sought out Mills to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood education from its acclaimed School of Education. She started classes last fall, and expected to graduate with a Mills degree by 2023. But since the merger will be completed by July 1, her degree will come from Northeastern. 

Misra was recommended to Northeastern University’s master’s degree in teaching elementary education, and she’s also considering the school’s master’s program in learning and instruction. But neither of those is an exact match for an early childhood education concentration, which focuses on child development and learning from birth to age 8. 

Since graduate programs and courses at Mills are extremely specialized, Misra fears that not all the classes she’s taken for her degree will count towards the Northeastern programs. She considered transferring to an early childhood education program at San Francisco State University, but found that only 9 of her 24 credits would transfer, she said. 

If she’d known last fall what her degree choices would be at Northeastern, said Misra, she could’ve chosen different classes for the spring or chosen not to enroll altogether, to avoid the risk of signing up for classes that may not count toward her eventual degree. 

“They told us this the day before classes started, so we’re left in this situation where we just have to trust,” she said. “I’m going to hope that the classes I take this spring are going to count, even though they’re not K-12-focused. Then, depending on the information I get, I’m going to look into transferring in the fall.”

Merging two schools is a complex process

Mills College administrators have said Northeastern University will be flexible with students who need to transfer credits or change degrees, to make the transition as smooth as possible. Christie Chung, a professor of psychology and an associate vice provost at Mills, encouraged students to have an open mind about the possibilities at Northeastern. She added that her program and position could be changing, too.

“I knew how difficult it would be for Mills to continue as an independent college, but it’s fortunate that we were able to find a partner that would value who we are and allow us to continue educating students on this campus,” she said. “Although the news was sad, we [professors] eventually accepted it and had to deal with it as we try to create the next chapter for Mills.”

Citing the school’s financial problems and declining enrollment, Mills officials announced last March that the college would stop enrolling new undergraduate students beyond the fall and that the last degrees Mills conferred would be in 2023. Then in June, Mills and Northeastern announced they would be forming a partnership that would allow Mills to continue educating students on its campus. Details of the partnership were made clear in September with the news that it would be a merger.

“The very distinctiveness of some of the Mills programs is also part of the challenge,” Hillman said. “We didn’t have sufficient enrollment to actually enable us to cover the costs of offering many of the specialized programs that we offer.”

In exploring a possible merger, president Hillman said that a primary goal was finding a partner that would allow students to finish their degrees without any increase in tuition, which Northeastern agreed to do. 

Once the merger is finalized in July, Mills will no longer be an independent institution and won’t be able to grant degrees. Northeastern will, but only for the degrees that it is already approved to offer. If the school wants to create new majors in the future, it will require the approval of university faculty and board members.

Hillman said the complicated process of merging with another university and dealing with accrediting agencies hindered the school’s ability to communicate changes to students sooner. It was only very recently, she said, that administrators knew exactly how Mills’ and Northeastern’s programs would intersect. 

When Mills and Northeastern announced the merger in September, the schools had only received initial approval from accrediting agencies. But it wasn’t until January that the schools received final approval and could look at how Mills’ existing degree programs would be impacted. Once they had clarity, Mills administrators informed the students, Hillman said. 

“It requires such a close look and work with accreditors before you can actually say what you can do for students,” she said. “If we share information with insufficient knowledge, for instance, if we don’t have approval from an accreditation agency prior to sharing the information, it’s not really meaningful information to share with students.”

Giving students just several days to decide whether to continue at Mills College at Northeastern was necessary so that students and their advisors would have enough time this semester to plot out new academic pathways, Hillman added. 

Selby, the creative writing student, is disappointed that she won’t be able to get a degree from Mills College. The school had been recommended to her by her therapist, another Mills College alumna. But beyond not having her specific degree program, Northeastern University just isn’t the experience she wants. 

“I’m not trying to say that Northeastern is a bad school, but it’s not the school that we applied for. Mills is a unique place with a history, it has great academic programs that are difficult to find at other places with the same level of quality,” she said. “We love Mills and we want to preserve it as it is.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.