Unity College expects to have its largest incoming class and largest overall enrollment ever this fall, driven by interest among young people in its singular brand of sustainability science education.

Propelled by student-centered investments in academics, personnel, facilities, and technology, college officials predict more than 700 students will arrive on campus when school begins on Aug. 29. Last year, the 665 headcount was the largest enrollment in college history. That landmark will be surpassed again this year.

“It surprises some people, who think we’re just a little private college in rural Maine,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “The reality is, there is a hunger out there for well-rounded education, grounded in science and informed by the humanities and liberal arts. By offering small class sizes, individual mentoring, transdisciplinary research, and hands-on field work, we are in high demand.

“It’s a recipe that confers real advantages on our alumni and students as they assume the mantle as the next generation of environmental leaders,” he said.

Khoury said the school anticipated the enrollment surge based on higher numbers of applications over a multi-year period, and has quickly restructured itself to support a larger student body. “We are ready to welcome them when they arrive,” Khoury said.

“There’ve been a lot of exciting changes on campus, but one thing that doesn’t change is that Unity College is a home for students who value the close-knit community we create together,” said Chief Student Success Officer Dr. Sarah Cunningham. “As we welcome more students into the family, we are also hiring the team to support them — counselors, coaches, tutors, and more — which will help us give each student the attention he or she deserves and the support to help them make good choices, overcome challenges, and achieve success as a Unity College student.”

In only the past six months, the school has invested $6 million in two new student support buildings, both to be opened this month; repurposed two signature campus buildings to serve as academic and student support facilities; hired eight new full-time faculty; and rolled out its M.S. in Professional Science degree, the first-ever graduate degree at Unity College and the first time America’s Environmental College has ever offered its unique sustainability science curriculum online.

Over the summer, Khoury announced Unity College was reorganizing its academic unit into two schools — the School of Environmental Citizenship and the School of Biodiversity Conservation– replacing five academic centers.

“The new academic structure is designed to create the space for faculty to rethink the way higher education is delivered, to maximize benefit for students,” Khoury said. “The realignment better matches our educational framework of sustainability science, harmoniously blending theory and practice to prepare a well-rounded student.

“This restructure was completed from a position of strength, maintaining all of our current majors,” he said. “In fact, we added new faculty to ensure that our families’ investment is honored and quality is uncompromised.”

Anticipating record enrollment, Unity’s multi-year campus buildout has employed hundreds of local contractors and used products and services from dozens of Maine vendors. In the 2015-16 academic year, Unity College projects invested more than $9 million in local vendors. “Unity has made the commitment to be an economic driver in Maine,” Khoury said.

Projects over the last four years have included construction of two new $4.4 million fossil-fuel-free residence halls that opened in 2013 and 2014; a $1.1 million cafeteria expansion, completed in 2014; renovations to Higgins Wing of the Student Activities Center; construction of a brand new outdoor deck and dining area; repurposing of two signature buildings — Unity House and TerraHaus — into classroom and student life space; and a $6 million expansion that includes a new academic building with classrooms and student success center, plus a new fossil fuel-free residence hall exclusively for first-year students, completed this fall.

“We’ve invested $20 million in student-facing infrastructure in the past four years,” Khoury said. “We’ve kept tuition 15 percent below the national average so everyone can afford a Unity College education. We are increasing outreach to multicultural communities and first-generation Americans, in order to diversify our campus and educate everyone in the importance of environmental sustainability. We just hired eight new full-time faculty and created the first executive-level student success post ever at Unity. So we are bulking up and expanding at exactly the time many small, private four-year colleges are retrenching.”

Khoury noted Unity’s record enrollment and revenue numbers come amid a challenging  backdrop for small private colleges nationally. In a July 2015 financial outlook, the investor research service Moody’s found one in 10 public and private colleges in “acute financial distress.” In a separate report, Moody’s predicted closure rates at small colleges and universities will triple in the coming years, with as many as 15 institutions shutting their doors annually by 2017.

Unity College’s popularity in 2016-17 comes from enrollment success and endorsements by independent sources: one for innovative learning opportunities; another as one of the nation’s 32 “greenest” campuses; one as a Top 20 baccalaureate program in the US; and a fourth naming Unity College one of America’s “Cool Schools” for outstanding environmental commitment.

Meanwhile, in partnership with its undergraduates, Unity College faculty in the past two years have gained national and international attention for the discovery of a new species of microscopic animals that could have seismic impact on human habitat, acted as a national resource on issues of captive wildlife care and research, and conducted nationally recognized studies of the iconic Maine black bear that created a wealth of data for species management.

“Not-for-profit private higher education is experiencing industry-changing disruption, and Unity College is in a unique position to lead industry change, not only in sustainability education but in higher education more generally,” Khoury said. “With 225 wooded acres of campus overlooking Unity Pond, our unique location is providing extraordinary opportunities for hands-on learning and research and helps students make Maine their living laboratory while Maine keeps its lofty perch as Educationland.

“People outside of Unity College think I’m joking when I say our goal is simply to change the world. But we’re doing just that, one student at a time.”

About Unity College

The first institution of higher education in the nation to divest from fossil fuel investments, Unity College is committed to educating the next generation of environmental professionals. Sustainability science lies at the heart of its educational mission, with 16 environmentally focused undergraduate majors and an M.S. of Professional Science degree offered online. For more information, visit unity.edu.

Thursday, August 11, 2016