Carleton and St. Olaf colleges sit just a mile apart in the little city of Northfield. A Frisbee throw away, a Carl might say.

Yet in many ways, the two have kept their distance.

Now that's changing as pressure to contain costs and ever-rising tuition makes even these selective schools seek savings. Playful fights over which college has the taller wind turbine have given way to talk about partnering on payroll.

The private, nonprofit colleges are studying whether it would be smart to merge business operations, technology contracts or maybe foreign language faculty. They've already combined their library collections. "Geography and history have dealt our institutions a hand with a special card that we've never really played," said Steven Poskanzer, Carleton's president. But don't expect the two colleges to share football fields or combine choirs, he said, laughing. "This is no merger."

It's a partnership that more private colleges across the country are forming.

"While the trend started taking root before the economic downturn, the financial challenges now facing higher education mean these partnerships will accelerate," said Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The alliances range from a couple of nearby colleges sharing language classes to dozens of institutions statewide boosting their purchasing power by collectively contracting for a new computer system. Always, the colleges' goal is "maintaining their separate institutional identities," Pals said.

Simple barriers

Morphing a friendly rivalry into a friendlier alliance requires a shift in culture, college leaders said. Poskanzer and St. Olaf President David Anderson have it down to a routine. At a recent staff meeting, the presidents swapped ties with their colleges' logos, helping each other tighten the knots.

"This is what collaboration looks like," Anderson said during a conference call in which the pair finished each other's sentences.

Yet there are simple barriers. The two colleges operate on distinct calendars. Carleton, which prefers trimesters, is on winter recess, while St. Olaf, with its semesters, is in full swing.

"An interesting discussion will be ... how much of an impediment having different schedules is," Anderson said.

"It's much less of an impediment for more back-office operations," Poskanzer said, compared with academic ones.

Students can enroll in the other school's courses, but partly because the calendars make that difficult, few students do. Just four Carleton students took classes at St. Olaf during the past two terms, a Carleton spokesman said.

Colleges with more crossover also have better transportation between campuses, said Nancy Aarsvold, St. Olaf's assistant director of instructional technology. "We've joked about a gondola going back and forth," she said.

Next door, a model

St. Olaf and Carleton employees have scanned the country for models. Using a $50,000 Mellon Foundation grant, they visited colleges including Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore, which offer cross-registration, and closer by, the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, which claim different presidents, campuses and traditions but share a single academic program.

Colleges are members of many associations, but these are more dramatic bonds.

One of the largest examples is next door. The 23 colleges that make up the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities opt into more than 40 cost-saving programs, including contracts for office supplies and pricey enterprise systems.

"The early ones were the tough ones," said Rolf Wegenke, the group's president. Now, the colleges collectively save more than $9 million a year, he said, although confidentiality agreements keep him from giving more detailed numbers.

Since the recession, colleges nationwide have been calling Wegenke to find out how the partnership works.

"There is huge interest," he said. Like its own board of directors realized years ago, he said, small nonprofit colleges have three alternatives: raising tuition -- "and no one wants to do that" -- increasing private philanthropy -- "harder now than it ever was" -- or becoming more efficient.

It has worked, Wegenke said. But he also offers a warning: "This is not easy. It is complex. You cannot go to Wal-Mart and pick up one of these collaborations off the shelf."

'There was anxiety'

Already, the Northfield colleges' library collections operate as one, called the Bridge, cross-lending more than 16,000 items a year.

A St. Olaf student can check out a book in Carleton's collection and have it brought over via twice-daily courier. Before purchasing a title for its own collection, Carleton checks with St. Olaf. With the Carleton library down one employee, St. Olaf staff members pitch in.

A decade ago, when the partnership started with the help of an earlier grant, "there was anxiety," said Roberta Lembke, St. Olaf's director of IT and libraries. "What does this mean for my job? What if I don't agree with this new process?"

But that apprehension has eased, she said. "They don't think about the idea of collaboration. They do collaboration."

She's now working on how information technology might share resources, too. There's been progress: She's on the search committee for Carleton's new chief technology officer.

Lembke said she believes such partnerships will help the colleges contain costs. St. Olaf's library staff has not grown in several years, she said, "and I would expect in the future that we will maintain or contain staff sizes."

"We all realize there's an issue" of swelling tuition costs, said Aarsvold. "I have a daughter in college. But I think the big goal is enriching the student experience and finding a way to expand our programs without expanding the budget.

"Maybe you don't save money, but maybe you don't spend more."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna