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Updated: November 17, 2022

Unity College slashes tuition, sets enrollment record

Courtesy / Unity College Circled are the three buildings Unity College occupies at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. The left “F” is Freeport Hall, which houses the Technical Institute for Environmental Professions and other services. The middle “R” is Raymond Hall, which is home to Unity’s distance education program. The right “Y” is Yarmouth Hall, which houses the president’s office, advancement, business office, human resources and more.

A dramatic drop in tuition and multiple learning options have resulted in a nearly 10-fold increase in enrollment at Unity College over the past decade.

The college set a new enrollment record this fall with the arrival of over 1,900 new students. That brought the full-time student population to more than 4,600 students, up from 540 a decade ago.

Today, tuition averages $13,000 a year for a baccalaureate degree, compared to $23,000 in 2012, and $28,000 in 2018.

In 2017, Unity adopted a student-centered “enterprise model” as its organizational structure to provide flexibility, affordability and better access for students, said President and CEO Melik Peter Khoury. 

person smiling
Courtesy / Unity Environmental University
Melik Peter Khoury

An enterprise model allows the college to attract a more diverse socioeconomic and multicultural student population. Today, it has a 22% self-disclosed diverse student population, up from a 50-year average of 8%. The enrollment includes students from all 50 states. The average student age has grown from 19 to 28, as more place-bound adults enroll in Unity’s experiential online programming.

Unity, formerly headquartered in the town of Unity, is now based in New Gloucester, although it maintains a campus in Unity and has additional facilities in Moose River and Thorndike. It offers undergraduate and graduate education based on sustainability science that emphasizes studying the environment and natural resources. It bills itself as "America’s Environmental College.”

Khoury said the goal is to graduate “thousands of culturally competent, well-educated individuals who can make an immediate impact in the environmental career space.”

He added, “It is our duty to make sure those students are not debt-ridden to the point that it prevents them from reaching their true potential.”

Educational units

The college’s new enterprise model includes distinct, independent “sustainable education business units that are decentralized and charged with developing programs, services and products tailored to student-specific needs."

The college now has three academic business units and one business ventures unit.

The distance education arm is based in New Gloucester and serves online-only students. That includes adult learners and people from across the country who need to work full time while also in school. Instructors include scientists working full time in the field. The option incorporates immersive technologies, field assignments and real-world learning to help distance students earn a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or non-degree credit on their own schedules.

The hybrid learning arm is based in Unity and serves students looking for a residential program with online offerings. The goal is to train students for careers in environmental issues through online classes and optional in-person classes. Students can choose in-person classes from Unity, Moose River and field stations around Maine. Hybrid degrees range from law enforcement to wildlife biology. 

The new Technical Institute for Environmental Professions on the Pineland Farms campus in New Gloucester provides in-person and online learning, offering associate degrees and certificates. It provides skills for students looking to upskill, retrain, or start new careers. Programs prepare for high-demand industries such as data analytics, renewable energy and veterinary technology.

classroom with people
Courtesy / Unity College
Construction was recently completed of Unity College's new Technical Institute for Environmental Professions, at Freeport Hall on the Pineland Farms campus in New Gloucester.

A “sustainable ventures” unit supports revenue-generating businesses.

The units have shared services — such as academic administration, information technology, human resources, financial, physical assets — but operate independently from one another.

Large distance ed segment

As of its latest term, Unity had 4,638 full-time-equivalent students. The vast majority –  4,472 – are enrolled in the distance education arm, which utilizes custom-designed online courses that focus on project-based and hands-on real world experience so students can work in their own communities. 

The commuter arm is the Technical Institute for Environmental Profession.

The hybrid learning arm has residential students who live on-campus at the college’s 90 Quaker Hill location in Unity. Currently, 170 students are enrolled in hybrid learning. An average of about 60 students live on campus per term, a number that’s expected to grow in the future.

Environmental focus

The college’s recent growth is supported by environmentally focused in-demand majors such as animal health and behavior, conservation law, marine biology and sustainable aquaculture.

“We do not simply take our courses and put them online,” said Distance Education Executive Director of Enrollment Management Denise Young. “Unity College distance education courses are designed to be experiential, which means our students are getting hands-on experience right in their own area of the country.”

Technical Institute for Environmental Professions, which opened this fall, is part of an $8 million investment by Unity College.

Additional accessibility measures include charging $250 per credit hour for degree-seeking students, with some courses starting every two weeks. The flexible terms allow students to speed up their learning, allowing them to quickly get into a career.

The college’s operating budget in 2021-22 was $37.3 million, up from $14 million in 2012-13.

Khoury told Mainebiz that the college is able to maintain financial viability despite the steep decrease in tuition through its establishment of shared centralized services that can support all of the enterprise arms, as well as carefully evaluating fixed and variable costs and the level of tuition needed per credit hour for each type of learning option, rather than a flat tuition.

“We took away that gamesmanship and created a price that allows each of our subsidiaries to have the courses they want – residential, remote and the like,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about understanding costs and investing in the right places and building to scale.”

The flexible model was a long time coming, given that conventional higher education has resulted in crippling debt for many students, he said.

“This came over time as we saw more and more families looking for careers in the environmental economy and saying, ‘I might not be able spend four years on a campus – what are my options?’” he said. “So we chose a model that says, ‘Choose your experience. If you want residential, fine. If you want to live in your community, fine.’ We’re trying to take those barriers out. It’s years of iterative, continued improvements in learning, instead of assuming there’s only one way to offer an education.”

Khoury said that, in the coming years, Unity plans to expand the institute’s model to other states seeking environmentally focused workforce development programs.

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