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Record enrollment at Maine college offering diverse learning options post-pandemic

Across the country, more than 60 colleges have closed or merged since 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic put further financial pressure on colleges and students alike. But one college in Unity, Maine is seeing record enrollment by offering students various learning options. Jeffrey Brown looks at what they could mean for the future of colleges. It's part of our ongoing series, "Rethinking College."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The COVID-19 pandemic has forced colleges to adapt like never before, and it's continuing to alter the way millions of American students are receiving instruction.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at the effects of those changes and what they could mean in the future.

    It's part of our ongoing series Rethinking College.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Empty campuses, eerily quiet classrooms, unused dormitories, a new normal in a time of pandemic.

    But even before COVID hit, this was a vision some colleges were confronting.

    College students and faculty have been forced into remote Zoom classes around the country this year, of course. But here at a small Unity College in Central Maine, they were already moving in that direction, part of longer-term changes in higher education, not just to survive a pandemic, but to survive at all.

  • Melik Peter Khoury, Unity College:

    We, as an industry, were a little bit in denial, in my opinion.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Melik Peter Khoury is Unity's president.

  • Melik Peter Khoury:

    The tier one institutions are in a league of their own.

    But for the rest of us, I think some noticed that something had to change. We just decided to start looking at those changes before it became a problem, which is harder. Sometimes, it is easier for institutions to make change when in crisis.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Founded in 1965, Unity is a private liberal arts college known for its environmental studies focus and hands-on experience.

  • Narrator:

    Unity College is America's environmental college.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But Khoury says, even before the pandemic, lower enrollment and higher costs were making its traditional model unsustainable, threatening the college's future.

    He began to rethink how instruction could be delivered, including remotely. Then came the pandemic.

  • Melik Peter Khoury:

    We basically lost $12 million in revenue overnight, having to send everyone home. Lucky for us, five years prior, we had started to invest in technology. So we were able to allow students to continue their education, just not how they started.

    So, our distance education students were fine. Our residential students were really upset by it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Unity is certainly not alone. While the vast majority of colleges have announced plans to return to more normal operations next fall, many are still facing dire financial forecasts going forward.

    Across the country, more than 60 colleges have closed or merged since 2016. That's what Khoury says he was trying to avoid when Unity announced major changes last summer, laying off or furloughing about 30 percent of its staff and shifting permanently to an online and hybrid model. It didn't sit well with some students.

  • Delana Kirwan, College Student:

    I was willing to be online for the fall for the pandemic, and just keep everyone safe. But anything further than that, that just wasn't what I signed up for.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Twenty-year-old Delana Kirwan came to Unity in 2019 to study wildlife and fisheries biology. But she decided to leave last fall and transfer elsewhere.

    Why was the traditional college experience important to you?

  • Delana Kirwan:

    So that I could directly talk with my professors and go to their office hours, as well as, like, the different study groups that they had, because you can't really simulate working with animals on a computer.

    And so that was extremely important that I get that hands-on experience, so that I can do the best in my career one day.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But Unity's move to hybrid learning was exactly what 42-year-old Joshua Tait was looking for. A father to a 3-year-old son, Tait is a sophomore.

  • Joshua Tait, College Student:

    It has been very beneficial to me.

    When I started out my first term in Unity College, we only had one car, and my girlfriend was using it to go to work. So I really needed something that I could do from home and also be a caretaker for my child.

  • Aly McKnight, Unity College:

    Which isn't really a distinction that you can make for all of the birds, for sure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But Tait says he also came to Unity for opportunities like this one. He and Professor Aly McKnight recently hiked several miles into nearby woods as part of an ornithology class.

    The goal on this night was to survey the surrounding area for American woodcocks, a small bird that often comes out after sunset.

  • Aly McKnight:

    Almost every course I have taught this year has some big component where students have to go out to an area near wherever they are and apply the techniques that we're learning about, so they're not just reading about things and watching videos.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Some Unity professors, like Katera Moore, are also happy with the new flexibility. Moore can now live in Philadelphia and work remotely in rural Maine.

  • Katera Moore, Unity College:

    As an urban geographer, I study environmental justice in cities, and so it just would be an oxymoron in a way, for me to move to Maine to work. And then, plus, my family is here. I have a 94-year-old grandmother. My husband's job is here in Philadelphia. He's been working this job for 32 years.

    And so it would be no way possible for me to move to Maine.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But these changes have many upset, and raise a new kind of threat to the town of Unity itself.

  • Tamika Adjemian, Unity Kitchen:

    I think that the town is reeling right now from the loss of the students as well as the faculty, who have moved on or faculty who are now working from home.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Tamika Adjemian to the area two years ago and opened Unity Kitchen. She says the restaurant had been a popular hangout for faculty and students. But, today, it's barely hanging on.

  • Tamika Adjemian:

    To be honest, I don't think that I would have bought this building and started this business if there wasn't something here that I thought would help support us and help us grow, which is the school, because there really isn't anything else here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Unity President Khoury admits the move to permanent hybrid and distance learning has been both difficult and controversial. But he says offering students many options, residential, fully online, a mix of the two, even opening a new technical school, has led to record enrollment.

  • Melik Peter Khoury:

    We have gone from a 50-year average enrollment of about 600, and we're currently at 1,600 students.

    Our average age at Unity College for the student population for the last 50 years has been around 19. It's now almost 30.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Earlier this month, Unity announced it will reopen its campus in the fall. But Khoury says he's uncertain as to exactly how many students will return.

    About two-thirds of Unity's students are currently enrolled in its distance education program.

  • Melik Peter Khoury:

    I think any institution that only chooses one way to teach is on borrowed time. We have an obligation not to change the curriculum, but change how, where, and when we offer it, and make it more relevant in the 21st century.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's something colleges around the country are now grappling with.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Unity, Maine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you for bringing us that story. Thank you, Jeff.

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