Unity Environmental’s online pivot continues to pay off

July 8, 2024
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Unity Environmental University has celebrated explosive enrollment growth since it transitioned to a predominantly online institution beginning in 2016. And at a time when many small colleges are struggling with stagnant enrollment and financial challenges, Unity’s strategic pivot to digital learning continues to pay off.

Last month officials announced that they would raise all employee salaries without increasing the cost for students. They vowed to freeze tuition for all online undergraduate learners at $470 per credit hour, where it has informally sat since 2018 and now will officially stay until at least 2030. At the same time, they raised the minimum salary for full-time employees to $50,000 per year; staff at the Maine-based institution who are already at or above that mark will receive an average raise of 7 percent.

“We in higher education are at a real moment to say, ‘How can we remain independent, yet relevant?’” said university president Melik Peter Khoury. “At Unity, we think that this is a moment for institutions from all over the country to rethink their traditions and their biases about what real education is. We can have a society that is educated, and it doesn’t have to be one that is burdened by unnecessary loans.”

“That’s what we’re doing here,” he added. “We are showing that you can grow, you can scale and you don’t have to only rely on the centuries-old education model.”

Many of Unity’s peer institutions can only dream of such success; while enrollment at the environmental university has grown by more than 1,400 percent since fall 2012, from about 600 to an anticipated 9,100 this fall, dozens of other small private institutions—especially in the Northeast and Midwest—have been forced to merge or close.

Khoury is confident that Unity’s enrollment will continue to climb, breaking 10,000 and representing all 50 states by fall 2025.

The university’s recent moves to support both employees and students wouldn’t be possible without the steep enrollment growth, he said. He credited the board’s willingness to rethink the institution’s organizational structure, course delivery and academic calendar with boosting interest.

“Many small, private liberal arts colleges prop themselves up with unfunded discounts, sacrificing long-term health for a fleeting illusion of success,” he said. “We had to make a decision: Did we really want to overdiscount just to close slower, or did we want to transform?”

Transform it did. Although the university still holds some in-person classes on its small campus not far from Portland, an estimated 95 percent of courses were taught online this past academic year. It also dramatically sharpened the focus of its academic programs; all 37 bachelor’s and master’s degrees are related to environmental or animal science. In addition, Unity ditched the traditional semester model, repackaging courses into eight five-week terms at the bachelor’s level and five eight-week terms for master’s students to make them more accessible to adult learners; the average age of students is 28, considerably higher than the historical average of 21.

University leaders say the tuition freeze and salary increases will allow Unity to lean into its successful model even more.

Denise Young, the university’s executive vice president of distance education, said the recent announcements will help ensure that students are being supported “properly” and that both students and staff “choose us over other colleges.”

While the university has the funds to add more jobs in financial aid, data analysis and academic advising, she said, it has proven challenging to find employees to fill them.

“Having that minimum salary is going to help us attract talent nationally to support our students and distance education. As we continue to grow and have an excess of some money to spend, we’re putting it back into our students by increasing their supports,” Young said. “So from my angle, it’s working on both sides.”

Challenging, but More Common

Online higher education experts applaud the choices Unity administrators have made to transition to online learning, noting that their ability to raise salaries without bumping up tuition reflects a future of financial sustainability.

Ray Schroeder, a senior fellow at UPCEA, the online and professional education association, said that the key to success in higher education today is providing students an affordable, “anytime, anywhere” degree that is closely tied to an industry that will survive the fourth industrial revolution.

“[Unity] has really hit the key points,” said Schroeder, also a blog contributor to Inside Higher Ed. “It’s so affordable … but also, they provide a curriculum that is tightly connected to the environmental industry and that appears to be one that will continue to thrive, even through the advent of artificial intelligence.”

Carolyn Fast, director of higher education policy and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, views Unity’s dramatic success as “kind of rare.”

“A lot of colleges have looked to online enrollment as a potential way to avoid the effects of the enrollment decline, but many have not had that kind of success,” she said. She suggested that increased competition for online degrees and overinvestment in marketing such programs may be to blame.

Schroeder noted that it could be Unity’s “wholesale commitment” to the online pivot that sets it apart from other small to midsize institutions that have transitioned to online more incrementally.

Still, expanding online education remains a crucial step for many colleges—especially struggling ones, he said: “It’s giving them small but significant advantages.”

Fast believes the specialized nature of Unity’s environmental science programs, combined with its decision to avoid external contractors in making the shift to digital, have amplified the university’s success.

“We’ve seen institutions try to acquire or merge with for-profit online colleges to try to get into the market. Or we’ve seen a lot of nonprofits partnering with these for-profit online program manager companies to try to offer that. And sometimes that hasn’t worked out to the benefit of institutions or the students,” she said. “This is an interesting example of a school that was just like, ‘We’re going to do this all ourselves.’ And they’ve actually been successful.”

She said she hadn’t heard of many other institutions following Unity’s model, but it could turn out to be an inspiring example.

“It’s probably a challenging thing to do,” she said. ”But it probably is going to be more and more common as the online programs continue to grow in popularity.”



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