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A Unity student pictured with exotic birds

Unity Environmental University has partnered with zoos, aquariums and national parks to deliver the hands-on aspects of its curriculum to online students.

Unity Environmental University

In fall 2012, Unity College had fewer than 600 students. Now, a decade and a name change later, Unity Environmental University counts more than 7,500 students. Administrators attribute the explosive enrollment growth to a hard online pivot centered on high-demand environmental programs.

Unity began rethinking its offerings in 2012, leading to the launch of its first fully online program in 2016. Since then, the college has welcomed a larger class each year, with an estimated 95 percent of students taking courses online.

The Pivot

Unity’s online expansion began in 2016, with a master’s of professional science in sustainable natural resource management and sustainability science. Twenty students enrolled and completed their coursework entirely online. The college later added additional master’s programs and undergraduate programs with a focus on the environment.

In 2018, a couple of years into its experiment, Unity had 71 online students and around 700 on campus. But since then, Unity’s enrollment has spiked, which President Melik Peter Khoury attributes to growing interest in its environmental programs at a time when “the climate crisis continues to accelerate,” he said.

Unity first began exploring online programs back in 2012, when officials took a hard look at the college’s offerings. The review forced them to rethink the institution’s organizational structure, course delivery, tuition costs and academic calendar.

“What we realized is our mission as an environmental institution and our curriculum was very relevant for the 21st century, but we really only served one audience well, which was residential, coming-of-age high school graduates in a very traditional approach,” Khoury said.

Administrators soon recognized there were many students who were place-bound or had time constraints, including adult learners unable to attend due to distance or the demands of work and family. While interest in environmental studies was growing, such programs were often inaccessible to far-flung students outside central Maine, where the college was founded in 1965 as the Unity Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Thirty-nine students enrolled in its first class.

In 2017—between Unity’s launch of online graduate programs and its expansion into online undergraduate offerings—the college restructured its organizational and financial model to introduce what it calls Sustainable Education Business Units—“SEBU” for short. So far, four such units have been established: one for purely online programs, one for hybrid learning and one focused on generating auxiliary revenues; the fourth SEBU is the Technical Institute for Environmental Professions, which adopts the community college model to offer associate degrees and certificates. It will deliver a mix of online and in-person programs when it opens this fall.

Unity’s website notes that its four SEBUs “utilize centralized shared services but operate independently from one another,” allowing them greater flexibility to adapt to immediate needs.

The college also invested $3 million in hardware and software to launch online programs. Faculty members were crucial in developing online classes and allowing Unity to keep instructional design in-house rather than tapping an online program manager, which would eat into revenues.

“Everything we have done we have done with our own faculty and staff,” Khoury said.

And as enrollment has grown, so, too, have investments in staff and faculty to build online capacity. But that growth has come with some points of tension—including when the college laid off about 30 percent of staff after if went fully online during the coronavirus pandemic, which officials said caused a revenue shortfall of around $12 million or more.

At the time of those layoffs in 2020, Khoury argued that breaking free from a fixed campus was exactly the “type of innovation needed to succeed in today’s economic and educational environment.” By doing so, Unity was better able to meet students “where they are,” he said. College officials envisioned a future untethered from a campus-based instructional model.

Since then, Unity has pressed hard into the online world, even with a curriculum focused on environmental topics. Khoury said Unity has partnered with local zoos, aquariums and national parks to help deliver hands-on course content to students across the U.S. Many of those students are already in the workforce; the average age of Unity’s online students hovers around 29.

College officials have also focused on increasing accessibility, flexibility and affordability.

Beyond launching a variety of online programs, the college has slashed undergraduate tuition from an average of $28,000 in 2018 to $13,000 today. Unity has also ditched the semester model, repackaging courses into eight five-week terms at the bachelor’s level and five eight-week terms for master’s students. Unity will also be experimenting with two-week terms when it welcomes the first cohort to its new Technical Institute for Environmental Professions SEBU.

An Uncommon Success Story

Online education experts say Unity’s enrollment boom is a rarity in a crowded online marketplace where many colleges play but few emerge as big-time winners. They note that it’s hard to stand out in a sector dominated by a handful of big institutions, including the University of Phoenix, Southern New Hampshire University, Liberty University and Arizona State University.

“I think there’s a tendency to underestimate the competitiveness of the market,” said Megan Adams, managing director of strategic advisory services at the consulting firm EAB. She added that many colleges also underestimate the infrastructure and expertise needed to compete in the digital realm, which can make it difficult for them to succeed.

Then there are the up-front costs.

“It’s not inexpensive to launch online programs, and it can take a while to break even,” she said.

Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University, noted that online enrollment is booming—as is competition among the institutions that cater to it.

“Generally speaking, online continues to outpace the in-person enrollment trend. But what’s changed, especially in the last few years, is that it’s much more competitive,” Gallagher said.

Finding a niche can be especially helpful to such institutions since the national reach of online programs lends itself to expansion opportunities. In Unity’s case, that niche is environmental programs, which Gallagher noted the college has done a good job of promoting nationally.

Unity’s hard online pivot comes as numerous small, private colleges across the U.S. are struggling. Looking at Unity’s neighbors in the Northeast—which have traditionally focused on residential experiences, as Unity previously did—many colleges have closed due to declining enrollment. And amid difficult economic headwinds, experts expect more colleges to close in the future.

Khoury doesn’t believe that Unity’s online pivot has saved it from succumbing to such a fate, but he suspects that if it hadn’t made the shift, it would—like many of its neighbors—be struggling to make ends meet.

“I think that we would have been like every other struggling college looking to make cuts to survive, dipping into our endowment and asking people to do more with less,” Khoury said.

He added that Unity wasn’t at the point where it was overleveraged or facing a structural deficit. Oftentimes, he argued, colleges wait until it’s too late to make major changes. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from Unity’s success, he suggested that it’s thinking ahead before times are dire and not waiting for a financial crisis to compel a change of course.

“I think many leaders wait until there is an exigency before they start to make these changes,” he said.

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