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Small Maine College Asks: Do We Need a Main Campus?

Unity College in Maine, which frames itself as "America's Environmental College," has opened up debate about whether small institutions really need to have flagship campuses to survive.

In a recently updated FAQ, college leaders wrote that for the time being, the school planned to "continue to offer face-to-face, experiential, environmentally-focused programs" on its 240-acre campus — once the campus reopens. At the same time, they noted, "If it is no longer financially viable, the college leadership has the ability to explore selling the main campus or any other college assets ... in order to ensure resources are allocated to best serve our students, their needs and the long-term sustainability of the college."

Unity, a private nonprofit liberal arts college, is on the small side with just under 1,300 students. However, enrollment popped after the school announced the "Path Forward," which shifted the college away from its traditional two-semester model, to a new calendar featuring eight five-week terms, enabling prospective students to apply to at any point throughout the year, with distance and hybrid classes.

Last September, for example, the institution announced its "largest incoming undergraduate class ever" — 296 new students — a 130 percent increase in distance education students.

The change in format was made in response to a 33 percent decline in enrollment for the traditional format and a projected loss of $12 million to $14 million in the 2020-2021 academic year.

The announcement included a promise that even though the college had retained a real estate firm to explore the sale of various assets, including the main campus, the new program would incorporate a hybrid learning model that would use locations across the state for hands-on learning, including a rural lodge, Acadia National Park and sites in individual cities, including Portland.

As the board of trustees explained in a letter to the campus community, "Once, the campus on Quaker Hill Road was our classroom, then Maine became our classroom. Now, our classroom is any location where a Unity College student is learning. As with schools across the country, we are considering the opportunities that presents."

Currently, all courses are being delivered online. The use of the hybrid learning approach is being considered for fall 2021, depending on pandemic conditions.

The FAQ added that the new model offers a "COVID-19-resistant education," giving students "flexibility throughout the year" to choose whatever remote-learning location works best for them.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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