Branching out: Why this environmental college is exploring online

Maine's Unity College made a big investment several years ago in technology and virtual learning. That decision before the pandemic has kept it from being 'a casualty of war.'
By: | May 27, 2021
Photos courtesy of Unity College

“We don’t want to be the last really cool vinyl record store in the United States. We want to be the college of choice for anyone who wants to work in the green economy.” – Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, President of Unity College

Unity College has dubbed itself “America’s Environmental College”, a moniker that fits well with its serene location in Central Maine. Undergraduate and graduate students enroll here to immerse themselves in environmental science, with goals of shaping a sustainable planet now and in the future.

Like many small private liberal arts colleges in New England, Unity has experienced a hardscrabble life since its inception in 1965, when just 39 students attended the original Unity Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Since then, some of its counterparts have tried and failed and ultimately closed, including the most recent example, Becker College in Massachusetts, earlier this year. Unity has managed to remain relevant, though certainly not without its challenges and detractors, many of whom don’t see the vision behind this fast-changing and growing institution.

Dr. Peter Melik Khoury, the college’s president since 2016, is trying to boldly shift Unity in a new direction and away from the staid approaches that have led to the demise of other institutions his size. The non-believers scoff at Unity’s push to be a hybrid-first institution, belying the very nature of the hands-on, environment experience. But Khoury points to the difference his college is making in terms of access, cost and other learning opportunities that have blossomed because of the transformation, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to small class sizes, Unity offers students the chance to take one or two courses at time over five weeks, giving them the flexibility to stop and start at their leisure. The proliferation of more online courses – and five new majors in the past six years – have given Unity renewed faith in its “agnostic modality.” That includes: fully online, hybrid, sustainable ventures with businesses, along with the residential experience. Although those trends may frustrate former faculty and currently students, the increase in new students and their savings offer caveats and hope as others remain looking for answers.

“At this point last year, we had about 900 students between the two models [online and residential],” Khoury says. “Our average alternative loan debt was about $7 million. This year, we have 1,600 students, and our average alternative loan debt is about $2.5 million. We are bringing in an average of 150 students per term, when we used to bring in about 250 students a year in the fall. We’ve been able to recover most of our losses. Even though we’re still not where we need to be, it’s only been a year. We couldn’t have done it if the only thing we had was the residential program.”

Unity College, working effectively with both models, is also expanding to students seeking associate’s degrees and certificates through its Technical Institute for Environmental Professions on its Pineland campus. That initiative is key as it continues to welcome in non-traditional students. To learn more about its new direction, University Business sat down with Dr. Khoury for a conversation about its transition and the future ahead:

The pandemic has provided additional challenges for small liberal arts colleges, forcing them to pivot modalities, meet student needs and spend more. How is Unity working through that?

Our Board of Trustees has been wrestling with changing demographics, issues for small private liberal arts colleges, since 2008. We had a number of failed starts because we were trying to make change in a system that isn’t built for change. In 2012, we really started to think about how we diversify and stop acting like anything that is not the four-year residential model is an alternative – to focus on differentiated audiences and differentiated pedagogy. By 2015, we had done significant work. We realized that our mission curriculum was relevant, however, the way we delivered the four-year regression model was a barrier to entry for the fastest-growing population in this country.

Too many people have the wrong impression of what an environmental college is because we are not an environmentalist college; we are an environmental science college. So, we started to invest in a new structure, a new governance system. That also included a significant investment in technology, something a lot of small liberal arts colleges did not do.

What were the changes you made to try to overcome gaps for students and make your institution stronger?

Dr. Melik Peter Khoury

We got away from the discounting. We created eight terms. Students can accelerate or decelerate. We leaned into all of that. So, when the pandemic hit, we got hit pretty hard in our residential program. But most of our institution wasn’t residential, and we were able to survive when I think we would have really struggled.

For us, it wasn’t like other institutions that basically went to their faculty and said, ‘hey, take everything you do in the classroom and put it on Zoom.’ We have curriculum designers, we have instructional designers, we have instructional technologists, we have an entire division dedicated to this. We were able to pivot and help those faculty members to launch their programs using remote until we could reopen again face to face, while our distance-education folks operated business as usual.

If the pandemic happened three years ago, I think we would have been one of those casualties of war forced to open because we had no other viable option. If we hadn’t started investing in this direction in 2015, this would have been much more difficult.

What has been the financial fallout from those decisions and during the past year as a result of the pandemic?

We lost $12 million in revenue overnight when we had to send everybody home in our residential program. Our distance education program was smaller, about a $4 million operation. One year later, my distance education program is a $15 million operation. We were able to do it without some of the consternations that other institutions are having by force-testing and putting kids in dorms, but then sending them to take classes online. As a result, without room and board, we are $5 million less in revenue than last year. But I think it would have been much worse. Cost of acquisition is very different in the residential program. It costs the average institution like ours $3,500 to $4,000 per student. This new model is costing us about $1,200. We make less, but this model is also much more scalable. The residential model has a lot more fixed costs.

What has made Unity College’s approach unique?

We believe in undergirding our curriculum in liberal arts and sciences, but students need to graduate with career readiness. One of my passions is to make the environmental sciences mainstream. We’ve always done an excellent job of that. Over the last nine years, we have looked to transform our institution, finding differentiated modalities, differentiated approaches, differentiated audiences to serve, not just to a 17-22-year-old who could take a large loan, but every student who wants an environmental education, be it a microcredential, certificate, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or master’s. We are aspiring to be a modality agnostic institution over the next five years. That means that every one of our outcomes to getting a credential can be delivered online or face to face, competency-based, and not forcing students to choose.

Can you share more about the concept of agnostic modalities and why you think that’s a good fit for Unity?

By having faculty and staff for each one of these audiences, and not a one-size-fits-all, they can practice their craft and their pedagogy. Our faculty and staff were already overworked. Asking them to then create an online program is ludicrous. No business does that. We said, stay doing what you do best, and we’re going to build a parallel angle. … Our strategic plan is very different. It’s not a list of capital needs. It’s a process of identifying students, finding what programs they want, determining the modality that best suits them, then you bring in the faculty and staff to build it, not the other way around. The future isn’t majors. The future is creating the disciplines to create well-rounded, culturally competent, environmentally aware, yet career-ready individuals.

Speaking of the future, how does the Technical Institute for Environmental Professions fit into those plans?

There is a need for upskilling, microcredentials, certificates, technical degrees. I feel like sometimes community colleges are trying too hard to be gen-ed schools than technical schools. We wanted to create something that focused on the reality that climate change is not a political issue – it’s a real-life, scientific issue. The green economy is growing: alternative energy, agriculture, food deserts, overpopulation. There is a skills shortage. Our model is private affiliation.

We are building our own technical school and we’ve partnered with a foundation in Southern Maine that has a beautiful campus that has organic businesses there. It is in the most densely populated part of Maine – Portland, Lewiston, Auburn. We are basically creating our own Technical Institute, looking at environmental workforce development. Why not use underutilized facilities and infuse our curriculum and education within that, instead of creating the house on the hill and duplicating the services that already exist in the community?

So, in Pineland, I don’t have to build a cafeteria. I don’t have to build the gym. I don’t have to build a campus store. They have all of those there. By doing that, we are able to keep our costs down. The community is defying the very concept of us vs. them. By bringing students there, all of the surrounding businesses are going to benefit.

The decisions you’ve made have been bold but met with some resistance. Talk about those challenges and how you’ve tried to overcome them.

I had to convince a group of constituents and employees that transitioning into our remote model for a year until we could reopen was a better approach than forcing the issue that some colleges have done. That wasn’t well received. Even though we have 1,600 students now, we have 200 very angry students. A third basically accepted this new model and are doing well but a third got angry. Those institutions who opened upset students. Those who didn’t upset students. We just had to pick our poison. We felt we had the technology, the curriculum and the support. We adjusted our tuition quite significantly. We adjusted our calendar, so we put them all of them on the nonstandard term instead of the semester model.

This new model that allows students to take one course at a time or two courses at a time – and you don’t have to pay room and board to get a quality education, but if you want it, you can have it – is creating a level of access and flexibility that the traditional semester just doesn’t give. The majority of our students are content. However, there is a population that feels lost, and it breaks my heart. We believe we did the right thing.

What are some of the surprising outcomes that have comes from making the changes?

As an institution, for 50 years we’ve never been over 650 students. We’re currently at 1,600, with 400 students in the wings (those who have taken credits, have stopped temporarily but can get back in anytime). Our average age for 50 years was around 19. Today, it’s almost 30. Our average self-disclosed diversity never went over 8%. Eighteen months after this, we are 17% and growing.

As you look ahead, what do foresee in near future for Unity College?

Once we are past the pandemic, we are going to give students options to do face to face, online or remote. If there’s a critical mass of students who want to stay residential, we have the campus. If they don’t, then we will offer face-to-face classes, but it will be in many different locations, not just one campus. I have designed a model thanks to the support of a great faculty, staff and board who are willing to think differently and not follow words like ‘best practice’ and ‘benchmark’ in an industry that you cannot benchmark. This idea that we need to be where the puck is going to be is outdated. We don’t even know if we’re playing hockey.

What we have done is we’ve created a supermodel: we have five very distinct approaches to education and depending on how higher education transforms, we want to be able to quickly pivot to that. If it’s residential, great. If it’s not residential, we don’t want to be caught by surprise. What do I plan to do this fall? The real question is what do the students want this fall? If they all want a residential program, we are here. If they don’t, I’m not going to force a subpar product to create the illusion of a resort simply because that is what everyone is told is real education.