Unity College is celebrating another record-setting enrollment for 2016-17 by remembering 50 years of alumni who have contributed to the growth of America’s Environmental College and to Maine’s position as “Educationland.”
“Unity College started as an economic engine for Waldo County a little over fifty years ago,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “And for half a century this institution has been drawing students, faculty, and staff and their families to work and learn in this beautiful part of Maine. Many alumni who came to Unity from out of state now live, work in their chosen fields, and pay taxes in Maine, helping make the state a model of environmental sustainability.”Unity College is attracting large numbers of applicants, notching record enrollments, and producing more graduates who find desirable jobs with higher-than-average incomes that allow them to manage education debt while they become environmental professionals.
As an example, Dr. Alicyn N. Ryan ‘11, who now serves as executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, told the Bangor Daily News she chose to stay in Maine because it is the “best possible place to work to effectively advocate for farmers.” Maine Farm Bureau works to preserve and grow Maine’s agriculture sector, ensuring the sustainability and profitability of Maine’s natural resource businesses through advocacy and support on legislation, regulations, marketing, and education.
Dr. Ryan and her husband, Andrew Smart ‘10, met while undergraduates at Unity College. While Ryan was getting her Bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture, Smart was finishing his in Conservation Law Enforcement. Andrew Smart is now a Maine Game Warden in the Ashland District and recipient of a 2015 Maine Warden Service Exemplary Service Award for saving the life of a young man.
Enrolling new Mainers
Following in the wake of Ryan, Smart, and other successful alumni, this year’s incoming class is expected to post Unity College’s third straight year of enrollment growth, with the student population expected to reach 700 for the first time ever.
The incoming class that enrolled in Fall 2015 was Unity’s largest to date, and applications for admission have more than doubled, up 122% from 2012 to 2016 — from 546 in 2012 to 1,210 in 2016 — a period which saw Unity invest more than $20 million in new campus infrastructure to support students.
Additionally, hundreds of the approximately 4,000 Unity College alumni who came here from out of state have chosen to remain here.
That’s a positive contribution to the state’s financial health, especially in light of a nonpartisan report issued this year by The Maine Economic Growth Council that said improving the lives of Maine people requires “a vibrant and sustainable economy, thriving communities, and a healthy environment.”
The report showed that Maine ranked last in economic output per U.S. worker in 2014. To reverse that trend, the Council advised “[u]tilizing our assets and resources and addressing our challenges in ways that maximize our growth potential will be vital in the years ahead.”
“We need to grow Maine’s economy in a way that honors and builds upon what is special about our state,” the report said.
“Whether you harvest forests or work to preserve them, whether you fish the sea or sea kayak, Unity College provides an education that’s increasingly relevant globally and to the economy, environment, and people here in Maine,” Khoury said. “Unity is about thinking more inclusively, more precisely, and more practically regarding the world’s most pressing problems and then turning that big thinking toward actionable solutions that improve the environment, our economy, and our communities.
“It’s why we believe Maine can become Educationland in addition to being Vacationland,” Khoury said. “As a state with abundant natural resources and a destination for international visitors, Maine has a higher calling. America’s Environmental College is answering that call.”
Bucking national trends
Khoury noted Unity College has posted its record enrollment and revenue against a challenging national backdrop for small private colleges struggling to survive. In a July 2015 financial outlook, the investor research service Moody’s found one in 10 public and private colleges in “acute financial distress.” Public colleges have seen similar financial stress as state funding remains weak, in Maine and elsewhere.
By contrast, Unity College celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 enrolling an all-time high of 650 students, with a new record 700 students expected this fall.
In 2012, Unity College became the first U.S. college to divest its portfolio of fossil fuels. From that year forward, it’s posted a positive return on its endowment that exceeded expectations, including a 10.7 percent rate of return from 2014 to 2016. In 2015-16, the school also posted a 300 percent increase in annual fund giving.
Major campus buildout
Anticipating these increases in enrollment Unity is completing a major three-year campus buildout that has employed hundreds of local contractors and used products and services from dozens of Maine vendors as the campus becomes a model of the U.S. college residential experience. In the 2015-16 academic year alone Unity College invested over $9 million in local vendors.
Projects over the last three years have included two $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 an academic wing of the Student Activities Center, construction of a brand new outdoor deck and dining area, and the repurposing of two signature buildings into classroom and student life space. A new $6 million expansion in 2016 includes an academic building with classrooms and student success center, plus a new residence hall for first-year students, both will be open for students this fall.
Taken together, and with other physical plant improvements, more than $20 million has been invested in campus improvements since 2012.
“Additional campus expansion and repurposing of buildings will continue,” Khoury promised. “At a time when parents are correctly demanding to see the value in a four-year college degree, Unity College must continue to upgrade its programs and facilities to improve the student experience and student outcomes, increase learning through advanced technology and methods, create a platform for environmental learning that’s unique to Maine, and produce caring, skilled graduates who have an impact in the environmental century.”
Bringing dollars and solutions to Maine
Unity College brings capital and knowledge to a state often maligned for losing students to “brain drain.”
Out-of-state Unity College students paid $10.1 million in tuition, fees, room and board in 2013-14, $10.6 million in 2014-15, and $13.1 million in 2015-16, and are projected to spend more than $13.2 million this academic year. That’s approximately $47 million brought to Maine from out of state in the last four years.
Additionally, highly educated faculty and staff are excited to work at Unity College and are drawn to Maine from outside the state, with 19 faculty and staff having moved to Maine to accept well-paying positions at the college since 2011. The new hires — many of them PhD-educated faculty — came from Florida, Iowa, New York, Louisiana, Oregon, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kansas, Indiana, and Montana; and from Australia.
“Unity College has what every school wants: a relevant and distinct mission, a creative faculty and staff, a loyal alumni base, a great location in one of the nation’s most diverse bioregions, and a disciplined leadership team, including our Board of Trustees,” Khoury said. “With that platform, we will deliver on the promise of America’s Environmental College. That’s good for our students, for Unity College, and for the state of Maine.”
An advantage in the market
Unity College performs favorably in the market, in part, by keeping tuition rates lower than its competitors.
For example, tuition, fees, room and board at Unity College for 2016-17 totaled $37,670, compared to $54,969 at a private, rural four-year Maine college with a similar mission and focus.
Yet the recent federal College Scorecard — an analysis of a graduate’s earning power relative to her student loan debt — showed Unity alumni earning nearly $10,000 more in income than competing alums 10 years after graduation despite the competing alums paying 46 percent more for their degrees, helping Unity grads repay their student loans more quickly and making a Unity College education by comparison an economically sustainable one.
“It’s gratifying that sharp consumers who make informed choices are increasingly looking at Unity College, with more and more inquiries, applications, and sustainable enrollments,” Khoury said. “We feel we have the best value proposition in the market for young people serious about sustainability science and next-generation careers as environmental leaders.”
A higher education model for the future
Khoury has made it clear he believes the current model of higher education is not adequate to meet today’s environmental and social challenges, which is why the school is investing so heavily in infrastructure supporting the residential student experience, boosting on-campus enrollment, and rolling out new distance education initiatives such as its new M.S. in Professional Science degree.
“For centuries, higher education was separate from the real-life needs of industry and leadership,” he said. “In order to serve in the 21st century, higher education must work with corporations, nonprofits, and world leaders, to prepare graduates to make a living and also a positive impact over a lifetime and around the world.”
“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.”
“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.”