Embracing diversity and the nontraditional student

On campus and off, Unity College appeals to students of all ages, races and creeds

As summer reaches its end, colleges and universities across the country are lauding the return of life and bustle to vacant dorms and empty green spaces as students arrive for the new school year.

At Unity College, the whirlwind start of move in, convocation and classes, both on campus and off, marks the return of the largest collection of students ever at America’s Environmental College. Bolstered by a growing Distance Education program, an historic 741 students are enrolled for the 2017-18 school year as of the first day of school, bringing on the college’s sixth straight year of enrollment growth and proving that Unity College is rising to meet the increasing demands of modern, non-traditional students and families who see value in a four-year college degree.

“Unity College continues to grow and evolve with the changing demographics of the world around us,” Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said. “We’re taking a hard look at how to become America’s Environmental College in every sense of the word, with a campus that reflects all the people of our nation. Sustainability science education is critical to the overall health of our world. The more kinds of students we reach, the more effective our ultimate mission.”

Flagship enrollment will stay steady this year as 712 students make their way to campus, a slight increase over the 710 students attending physical classes during the 2016-17 school year. It’s a far cry from the 30 students enrolled when the school was founded in 1965 — or even the 578 students on campus in 2011.

The school’s appeal to out-of-state students continues to rise, with 75.5 percent of new flagship students hailing from outside of Maine, bucking national trends that more than one-third of students go to college within 50 miles of home and increasing out-of-state enrollees five percent over last year. And with hundreds of the approximately 4,000 out-of-state Unity College alumni choosing to remain in Maine, the college is proving an invaluable economic driver to a state often cited as having a serious problem with their declining working age population.

Some interesting characteristics of the Unity College Class of 2021:

  • They self-identify as 45.7% female, 51.4% male
  • 10.28% of the class self-identifies as a minority
  • Members hail from 24 states, from every corner of the country
  • The most represented states are Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire
  • The average high school GPA is 3.28
  • 16 members of the class are non-traditional students over the age of 20

A remarkable 57 transfer students will also join the Unity College community this school year, growing the percentage of transfer students on campus by over 54 percent. Ranging in age from 18 to 51, and coming from as far as California, Oregon and Louisiana, Unity College’s incoming transfer population is a real reflection of the college embracing a new age of college students, even at the flagship. Transfer students, although difficult to track in government data, make up over a third of today’s college students.

Off campus, Unity College Distance Education also continues to grow, bringing in 29degree-seekinggraduate students since its start in October 2016, and boasting an incredible retention rate of over 90 percent. Next term the program will launch a new Master of Science in Professional Science for Environmental Geographic Information Science, and in January courses will begin for a new Sustainable Master of Business Administration.

“Our main focus now is getting the word out about the programs. How do we keep moving forward and get known for them? Get our name out there? Master’s is the new undergrad — more and more people are looking for this education,” Chief Distance Education Officer Dr. Amy Arnett said. “We’re very happy with how much we’ve grown when we’ve only been active for such a short period. It’s exciting to think about what the future holds.”

Some interesting characteristics of Unity College’s current Distance Education students:

  • Ages range from 25 – 55
  • They come from all over the country and beyond — North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Colorado, Texas, California, and even Brazil
  • From career advancers to career changers, students range from teachers to government employees, biologists to zookeepers and more.
  • Four master’s students are Unity College alumni

The incoming class won’t be the only fresh faces on campus, as Unity College has brought nineteen new staff and faculty to campus since the new year in response to increasing enrollment, and as one of the largest job providers in Waldo County. Among the new job titles at the school are a Dean of Academic Support, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Assistant Professor of Captive Wildlife Care and Education, Student Success Coach, and Associate Dean of Career Services. Over the past six years the college has grown from 132 full time employees to 160.

Throughout its steady advancement in size, the college has retained its impressive 15-to-1 student-faculty ratio and small community feel, benefiting from passionate, dedicated faculty and staff who encourage a high degree of student involvement, and assure an individualized, supportive, and hands-on learning experience. All while reducing courses taught by adjunct faculty from 31% to 20%, investing in a mission to teach students with established, full time employees despite national trends that put part-time faculty at approximately 40 percent of the national academic labor force.

“We understand that families are making a significant commitment to provide their students with a top-rate education and a home away from home,” President Khoury said. “That’s why we have made significant investments in student success and wellness initiatives this year, brought on more faculty and staff, and why we continue to upgrade our programs and facilities, increasing learning through advanced technology and methods. With our relevant and distinct mission, creative employees, loyal alumni base, and disciplined leadership team, we really deliver on the promise of America’s Environmental College.”

Students settle into a room in the Westview residence hall during campus-wide move in day last Saturday.