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UMass plans national online college aimed at adult learners

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

UMass president Martin Meehan suggests that the move may be the system’s best hope of long-term financial stability.

By Globe Staff 

Faced with a narrowing pipeline of potential in-state students and limited state resources, the University of Massachusetts plans to launch a national online college, the system’s president, Martin T. Meehan, said on Monday.

Suggesting that it may be the UMass system’s best hope of long-term financial stability, Meehan outlined an ambitious plan to build an online college focused on adults from across the country. This would be a new venture, separate from the online courses already offered at the various campuses.

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The UMass online college would compete with long-established national players such as Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University, Purdue Global, and Penn State World Campus, Meehan said.

“The time for us to act is now,” he said during his annual report on the state of the five-campus university system at the UMass Club in Boston. “It’s predicted that over the next several years four to five major national players with strong regional footholds will be established. We intend to be one of them.”

Yet it remained unclear how much such an enterprise would cost, what types of classes UMass would offer, and who would teach them. Meehan suggested that the system would likely have to borrow millions of dollars to launch this college, with the expectation of a return over the long term.

Terri Taylor Straut, an educational consultant who has worked with universities in establishing online programs, said it takes money, planning, and time to succeed in this market.

Many universities have chased online learners under the assumption that they can expand enrollment and access and make money doing it. But they’ve had limited success, Straut said.

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“They’re super, super complicated, and a lot of it comes down to the finances,” Straut said. “It’s a total rethink. . . . Enrollment just doesn’t fall from the sky. What’s your plan for how you’re going to reach people in Kansas?”

For example, many of the existing online programs spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing to lure students from across the country and world. UMass could potentially partner with other online providers or universities to develop its online college brand, university officials said.

Meehan delivered his remarks in front of a crowd of several hundred people, including state legislators and Governor Charlie Baker.

“It’s a pretty exciting opportunity for them,” Baker said of the online college proposal. “Obviously the big issue is going to be in the conceptualization and execution.”

Meehan and college administrators nationwide have grown increasingly concerned about the shifting demographics in higher education. The number of high school graduates has been shrinking — and will continue to. Experts predict a major drop in the number of high school graduates overall after the year 2025 — especially in New England — because people are having fewer children since the 2008 economic recession.

A growing roster of small, private colleges in New England have closed in the past year or have announced that they are seeking merger partners because of declining enrollment or deteriorating finances. Mount Ida College in Newton closed last spring. Newbury College in Brookline will shutter at the end of this school year. Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts said that it is searching for a “strategic partner” and decided against accepting any more new students for the fall semester. Southern Vermont College announced on Monday that it would cease operations after the spring semester.

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Meehan acknowledged that public universities are somewhat buffered from the enrollment declines, and students who might have gone to these small private colleges may instead apply to the state schools.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, the state’s flagship campus, has already seen some benefit: Last year it completed a $75 million purchase of Mount Ida College’s assets, allowing it to develop a satellite location closer to Boston.

On Monday, Robert Manning, the chairman of the UMass board of trustees, said that the system would likely be able to take advantage of some of the disruptions in the market and that more acquisitions and deals would be likely.

News reports have indicated that Hampshire College officials reached out to UMass Amherst leaders about a potential partnership.

Meehan suggested he is not convinced that Hampshire would be a good fit for the public system.

“That is not something that I have seen any data on that would make me believe that would be good for UMass at this point, but it’s early in the process,” Meehan said.

Meehan said UMass and its campuses have tried to tighten their budgets and develop programs that keep them viable. Meehan pointed to the announcement by UMass Boston earlier this year to lease the Bayside property in Dorchester to a developer for $235 million.

“But we remain at a crossroads,” Meehan said.

With an estimated decline in the number of college graduates, the state must focus on reaching older adults who may not have completed their degrees or need additional job training, and that will be the aim of the new online college, Meehan said.

As envisioned by Meehan, the online college would offer degree completion programs and customized workplace credentials for employers.

Meehan pointed to the success of Southern New Hampshire University, which grew from a small, private school a few decades ago into one of the largest, nonprofit online universities with more than 93,000 students taking classes entirely online. About 15,000 of those students are Massachusetts residents, Meehan said.

By contrast, UMass had only about 5,600 students taking only online classes, he said.

“Out-of-state institutions without our same reputation for academic excellence are enrolling adult learners in Massachusetts in the types of programs we seek to offer,” Meehan said.

The president said he plans to meet with leaders and faculty from the different campuses in the coming months to outline a plan for the online college.

Meehan and the UMass system have been exploring ways to expand into the national online education market in recent years. In 2017, Meehan hired Don Kilburn as the chief executive for UMassOnline. Kilburn was a former executive with United Kingdom-based Pearson PLC, an education publishing and assessment firm that has worked with US public universities to expand their online offerings. At the time, UMass was focused on bringing the online degree programs already operating on the individual campuses to a more national audience.

On Monday, Meehan said the campus online programs that provide bachelor’s and master’s degrees would continue to operate, since many of the campuses wanted to maintain those offerings.


Laura Krantz contributed to this report Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes @globe.com.