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A Moment of Reflection, A Feeling of Hope

January 12, 2021

Greetings!

As I begin my ninth year with Unity College, and in the spirit of a new calendar year, I would like to use this week’s letter as an opportunity to reflect on where Unity College came from and where it is going. Most importantly, I would like to make note of how we’ve arrived at the place we are today.

Unity College was founded in 1965 as the Unity Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences with 15 employees and 39 enrolled students. After two years, Unity Institute transitioned its name to Unity College and in 1969 awarded degrees to its first graduating class of 24. Unity College has since shifted its focus to a liberal arts education rooted in environmental and sustainability science. Today, Unity College has over 185 full-time, benefits-eligible employees and is thrilled to have approximately 1,500 students enrolled, quite a leap from 1965!  Some additional important milestones between then and now include:

  • 1988 – The Largest Environmental Career Fair: Launched the largest environmental career fair in New England, held annually since.
  • 1991White House Solar Panels: Unity College brings solar panels once attached to the White House back to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate the importance of renewable energy.
  • 2012First to Divest: Unity College becomes the first U.S. college to divest its endowment portfolio of holdings in fossil fuel producers.
  • 2016Distance Education Launched: Unity College begins offering online and distance education degrees, including its first master’s degree.
  • 2020 – Hybrid Learning Launched:Unity College shifts to programs with residential options designed with ultimate flexibility, allowing students to ability to pursue jobs and internships while staying on track to complete their degree on time.
  • 2020Record Enrollment: Unity College sees its largest enrollment ever with nearly 1,300 total students and welcoming its largest incoming undergraduate class ever.

These are just a few of the incredible moments Unity College has experienced in its relatively short history. When I consider how far Unity College has come since its inception, and particularly the growth experienced over the last five years, I cannot help but see a common thread throughout the College’s history: Strength in adaptation. Changing the name to Unity College in 1967 and shifting the curriculum to meet the demands of students at that time demonstrates Unity’s ability to be flexible and adapt to emerging trends and audiences. The rapidly growing need for environmental leaders and stewards continues to drive the advancement of the Unity College mission rooted in environmental and sustainability science.  Unity College continues to be a pioneer in making a private college education accessible to students from all walks of life who are passionate about tackling environmental problems.  

Many of you have seen the articles talking about the hardships higher education is facing on a national scale, and the pandemic is certainly not helping. You’ll note in this article from Inside Higher Ed, that prospective college students are in search of accessible, affordable, and flexible options for further their education and many are questioning the value of a degree at all. This article from the New York Post talks about the heavy drop in freshmen enrollment and applications for financial aid as students reconsider the traditional college path. While this is certainly disappointing news, this has been a trend over the last few years that has only picked-up speed as a result of COVID-19.

As the number of traditional-age college students decline nationally, and those in that group question the value of the traditional college experience, many of these students are turning to online education as a viable option. As a debt-averse generation with a strong focus on value, this article from Higher Ed Dive shows how traditional-age college students are finding online education to check those boxes. Not only does this group benefit from online education, but as a result of its accessibility compared to traditional higher education, online learning is a great option for a wide variety of student audiences.

Since its inception in 2016, enrollment in our distance education programs continue to grow exponentially. This year is no different as we are already beyond 1500 students enrolled in our graduate and undergraduate programs for the first term of 2021. This speaks volumes about the demand for quality online education by an increasingly diverse student population.  As a result of our work to better understand the needs of students and industry demands, we launched several new programs with Distance Education in 2020 including master’s degrees in Marine Science and Animal Science and Behavior, bachelor’s degrees in Animal Science, Environmental Health and Safety, and Environmental Health and Wellness.  These degrees are designed to prepare students with skills and knowledge to move into jobs that employers across various industries are urgently looking to fill.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,  jobs for Environmental Scientists and Specialists are expected to grow by more than 8% over the next ten years, much faster than other occupations.  We look forward to working with new partners this year to identify areas of need within their organizations so that we can continue to develop relevant degrees that are of value to our students through our environmental and sustainability science curriculum.

I am so thankful that we started distance education when we did and fostered its growth. If not for the success of these programs and given the current state of financial and enrollment trends for small private liberal arts colleges across the country right now, we would most certainly be in dire straits. I continue to be grateful for the strong team of faculty and staff who support distance education students and curriculum development. We have a more diverse student body than ever before, representing a wide range of geographic locations across the country and beyond.

In August 2020 Unity College launched Hybrid Learning, offering environmental and sustainability science degree programs that create a high level of flexibility for our students through a non-standard calendar.  We know that many students want to pursue an exciting internship or job opportunity, and Hybrid Learning allows them to do just that without having to put their degree on hold.  For example, Conservation Law Enforcement student Garrett Moody was able to turn his internship over the summer this past year with the Maine Warden Service into a job this past fall while still working to complete his degree on time.  Another example is Matt Schipps, a Hybrid Learning student working on a fire crew for the Bureau of Land Management in Montana who was able to continue working as a wildland firefighter as well as take classes online to finish his degree.  Through Hybrid Learning, Unity College students can take one or two classes per term to be considered full-time, which not only allows them to focus more wholly on those classes, but they are also able to pursue and maintain competitive jobs and internships while studying full-time.

While thankful to be in a position of strength during a difficult time for many of our peers, I am eager to announce our plans to offer in-person courses again. COVID-19 continues to put colleges across the county in difficult situations, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Over 1,400 colleges across the U.S. have made the decision to continue with fully online learning as we move into spring 2021.  I would encourage you to read the latest updates on the COVID-19 impact on higher education for a broader view of how colleges are attempting to manage this time of uncertainty.  We continue to monitor COVID-19 trends, and now with a vaccine, we hope to resume in-person learning soon. Believe me when I say that our Hybrid Learning folks are eager to see their students!

On a final note, I want to offer my gratitude to those of you who engaged with us over the past year. Thank you to those who gave a gift this past year. We experienced our largest Giving Tuesday on record last year, and we could not have done it without your support of our mission and belief in the future of Unity College. Many of you have shared your stories, demonstrating how you have put your Unity College degree to work. Others have been kind enough to connect us with your organization to help students find meaningful and exciting internships. In whichever way you engaged with us, thank you. Our students are the true beneficiaries of your generosity, as gifts support their education while stories and partnerships influence their career paths.

In my ninth year at Unity College, I hope to see continued growth in the diversity of our student population as we reach new audiences and advance our mission focused on graduating students who will go on to do meaningful work in environmental and sustainability fields. I hope to see students back for in-person courses and to move past COVID-19.  I hope to continue demonstrating Unity College’s commitment to the environment by applying what we teach our students to the way we work as an institution.  I hope we keep thinking outside the box and become a model for success among our peers. I hope to engage with you about how you can support Unity College’s future in a variety of ways.

Thank you for taking the time to reflect with me. I hope you are as excited about Unity College’s future as I am.  As always, please contact us at development@unity.edu, with any questions or comments you may have.

In Unity,

Dr. Melik Peter Khoury
President