UMass president announces plan for online college for adults

  • The campus center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. VIA FLICKR/STEVE SHERLOCK

Staff Writer
Published: 3/5/2019 7:57:50 AM

BOSTON — The University of Massachusetts system’s president says the university is planning to create an online college for adult learners.

The announcement from UMass President Marty Meehan came during his State of the University address on Monday. In addition to providing education and workforce development, Meehan said the new college would be a revenue driver as universities and colleges look for solutions to the financial challenges posed by a sharp decline in college-aged students on the horizon.

“Make no mistake — this is an existential threat to entire sectors of higher education, and New England is, unfortunately, ground zero,” Meehan said.

After birth rates declined significantly beginning with the Great Recession of 2008, colleges and universities across the country are looking ahead to an enrollment dropoff beginning in 2026. Already many are seeking mergers or partnerships, or closing outright; locally, Hampshire College has announced its own plans to find a partner institution.

In a statement, UMass Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said the online college will “very effectively” complement UMass Amherst’s recent expansion of its University Without Walls program, which helps adults complete their first bachelor’s degree. That expansion includes face-to-face, online and hybrid courses, whereas the new online college Meehan announced is purely online, Blaguszewski added.

“UMass Amherst will also benefit financially from the UMass system strategy, since the president noted that net revenue generated from the new online college will be returned to the campuses to sustain the university’s core mission of educating traditional undergraduate and graduate students,” Blaguszewski said.

Eve Weinbaum, the president of the faculty and librarian union at UMass Amherst, said the Massachusetts Society of Professors has had extensive conversations with the administration at UMass Amherst about online education.

“The great thing about online education is that it can provide access to people who are working full time or can’t get to campus and take advantage of what UMass has to offer,” she said. “So we’re all for access, and we need to make sure the classes offered online are excellent and meet the exact same standards as on-campus courses would meet.”

Weinbaum said she doesn’t know any details about who specifically will be teaching the courses at the new college, and Meehan did not provide that information during his address on Monday. Weinbaum said the administration has suggested to the union that it would be UMass faculty.

Weinbaum also mentioned University Without Walls, saying the program has already had success with adult learners.

“I think that’s been a great model and I think they do a really great job,” Weinbaum said. “It’s also really labor-intensive.”

Good online education, too, is labor-intensive, Weinbaum added. For those reasons, she questioned whether the new college would really be a big revenue generator.

“We want to make sure this is not being done in a way that is just intended to make money or save money, because we think that if you do it well it doesn’t do either of those things,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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