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Unity College sees unprecedented growth, sets new enrollment record with more than 1,200 students

August 18, 2020

America’s Environmental College sees record enrollment leaning into changing demographics and its mission, despite 33% decline on the residential campus

Since arriving at Unity College, it has been President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury’s primary objective to increase the accessibility, affordability, and flexibility of the curriculum, so that anyone, anywhere can obtain a degree or certification from America’s Environmental College. For the upcoming five-week fall term, between Distance Education and Hybrid Learning, the College projects an enrollment of nearly 1,200 students, a historical first for the College. Distance Education, which has spent more than three years developing at a rapid rate, will have more than 770 students enrolled, while Hybrid Learning will have more than 400 in its first-ever term.

While Unity College faced a 33 percent decline in its four-year residential program this fall, which brought a shortfall of roughly $12 million, the College’s investment in technology infrastructure and adoption of the Enterprise Education Model have helped offset the downturn. Though the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the dip in residential enrollment faster than anyone could have anticipated, the Enterprise Model, with its diversified revenue streams, enabled the College to pivot to Hybrid Learning rather than close its doors entirely.

“Despite the fact that we’re reaching more students than ever, facing such a significant decline in the residential program and the accompanying financial shortfall, we as a College have faced some of our most trying and difficult times in years,” said Dr. Khoury. “I’m sure with the current pandemic, we’re not the only one having this conversation. Ultimately, though, there’s a silver lining for Unity College. We are educating more future environmental leaders than ever before by embracing Distance Education and adopting Hybrid Learning. Our mission will live on. Has it been challenging? Absolutely. But as I tell our graduates almost every year, anything worthwhile almost certainly will be. And I know that our mission is not only worthwhile, but more relevant than ever.”  

Though each Sustainable Education Business Unit in the Enterprise Model functions independently, it’s designed to weather the ebbs and flows of the industry — when one SEBU is succeeding, another might be underperforming — and the Enterprise Model leans into the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. However, the sharp, sudden downturn of the residential SEBU enrollment for this fall was almost insurmountable, even with Distance Education exceeding expectations and the Sustainable Ventures SEBU seeing modest success. Had the Distance Education program merely met expectations, and not exceeded them, the College’s future — both short-term and long-term — would look drastically different. 

“Thankfully, that’s not a future we have to confront because of our forethought all those years ago,” said Dr. Khoury. “And we’re going to continue preparing for the future, evaluating how students want to learn, and most importantly, adapting to meet their needs.”

Like Distance Education, Unity College Hybrid Learning has created a fluid model with eight five-week terms, where students only have to take one or two courses per term to be considered full-time, and can choose to learn online, in-person, or a combination of both. 

“Hybrid Learning is really in its infancy, and I think there is a lot of room for that to grow in the same way that Distance Education has over the past three or four years, ensuring that a Unity College degree will remain relevant for our alumni for decades to come,” said Dr. Khoury. “After all, right now we need more Unity College graduates, not fewer. We need more environmental leaders entering the workforce. We need to protect our most important resource — our planet.” 

Embracing Distance Education and moving from a two-semester model to the 8-term Hybrid Learning model has not only made an education from America’s Environmental College more accessible and flexible, but it has also made it more affordable, with straightforward tuition prices. A student can take undergraduate courses through Distance Education for $470 per credit hour, and $650 per credit hour for graduate courses, $423 and $585 for service members, veterans, and their families. In Hybrid Learning, it’s just as simple — $470 per credit hour for online courses, $550 per credit hour for face-to-face courses.

“In 2016, when Distance Education first launched, we had about ten students enrolled in our graduate program,” said Dr. Amy Arnett, Vice President of Unity College Distance Education. “Now we’re anticipating nearly 800 students for the upcoming fall term, and we continue to grow and innovate, exploring new areas like introducing Virtual and Extended Reality to our curriculum to enhance that experience for students. It’s incredible to see how far we’ve come in such a short period, and I’m really excited to see what the next few years bring.”

Though Unity College saw a 33 percent drop in students enrolling in the residential campus, Distance Education has roughly doubled its enrollment every year, outpacing expectations while reaching new learners all over the country. It’s a trend that Unity College Vice President of Hybrid Learning Zach Falcon believes Hybrid Learning can replicate in the coming years through its novel approach to expeditionary learning that puts students first. 

“Nationally, higher education is seeing a decline in traditional student enrollment for a number of reasons, but at the forefront is that higher education has struggled to adapt to the needs of students,” said Falcon. “As we’ve seen through Distance Education, most students prefer taking one or two courses over a five-week term, rather than five or six courses in a 15-week semester. With that in mind, Hybrid Learning gives students who are coming right out of high school, or have taken a gap year, that residential experience, but on their time, with the option of taking online courses as well. It’s the ultimate in flexibility, for a generation of students seeking just that.”

“We are also expanding our partnerships across Maine, so that we can leverage new locations and local organizations to provide more immersive experiences for our Hybrid Learning students and Distance Education students interested in low residency options,” said Dr. Erika Latty, Chief Learning Officer at Unity College. “Not only will this benefit students by providing them with hands-on coursework, it will also expand their opportunities for internships and fulfilling careers after they graduate.”

Through Distance Education, Unity College has redefined the very idea of who a student at America’s Environmental College could be. “Since we added Distance Education to our portfolio, Unity College has seen a significant uptick in our ethnic diversity, with 18 percent of DE students self-identifying as such, and also in the number of veterans or active military working to earn their degree,” said Dr. Khoury. “We have professionals furthering their careers with a master’s degree, students who dropped out of their residential college after a few semesters and want to complete their degree, and working adults with families who are looking at a career change. And of course, they are learning from all over the country — from as far away as Texas and Washington state, and even right here in Maine. It’s truly inspiring.” 

Meanwhile, Unity College’s environmental mission remains as important as ever, with every degree and certification centered around sustainability and experiential education. In fact, when it is safe for students to return to in-person classes, Hybrid Learning students will have opportunities to participate in TERRAIN, Unity College’s signature expedition education model, which we plan to relaunch in fall 2021.

“One of the misconceptions we’ve heard a lot is: ‘How can you get an experiential education through remote or online learning?’ Our faculty and subject matter experts continue to work with curriculum and course designers to incorporate tactile and experiential elements into every remote course,” said Dr. Khoury. “People have also been challenged by the concept that learning can happen in numerous localities. Our Hybrid Learning students will be able to choose not only what course they take but where they will take it. Learning may occur online or in a face-to-face environment at one of our residential facilities that offer opportunities to get out into the field and get their hands dirty, conduct research, and develop leadership skills.”