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In Changing Higher Ed Landscape, UMass Boston Gambled — And Lost

Even as state aid has languished, the UMass system has embarked on a building spree. Pictured here: The Integrated Sciences Complex at UMass Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Even as state aid has languished, the UMass system has embarked on a building spree. Pictured here: The Integrated Sciences Complex at UMass Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

The recent budget woes at University of Massachusetts Boston may in part be due to mismanagement and fundraising shortfalls. Yet the difficulties at UMass Boston tell another cautionary tale as well — a harbinger of a mounting strategic challenge facing many higher education institutions. With the rise in nontraditional, older students, and the advent of distance learning that is more affordable, flexible and aligned with employer needs, colleges and universities that focus on expansion of their physical campuses — including residence halls and classroom buildings — and enrollment of traditional 18-22-year-old college students do so at their own risk.

UMass Boston assumed this risk, gambled, and may have lost. Beginning in 2011, the university embarked on a 10-year expansion plan to transform from a commuter school to a traditional university. This plan included building UMass Boston’s first ever dormitory, state-of-the-art laboratories to accommodate new Ph.D programs, and a range of new buildings to replace its dilapidated red brick complex, long in need of repair. Five years in, UMass Boston is staring at a potential $30 million deficit, stagnant enrollment, lower than expected fundraising and no financial relief in sight. And now the news that UMass Boston’s chancellor, Keith Motley, will step down at the end of the academic year.

Five years in, UMass Boston is staring at a potential $30 million deficit, stagnant enrollment, lower than expected fundraising and no financial relief in sight.

UMass Boston is not alone in misreading the changing higher education landscape. Other institutions are not heeding the warnings signs, either. In particular, three developments over the past 10 years have placed increasing pressure on traditional, campus-based higher education models:

  • Declining enrollment. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate and graduate enrollment has fallen for the fifth year in a row. This represents a 1.4 percent drop, or in real numbers, 1.59 million fewer students since 2011. In Massachusetts, enrollment has declined by 5.5 percent, or 10,744 students, since 2013. In addition to UMass Boston, colleges — especially non-selective colleges — across New England and the Northeast are reporting enrollment declines of as much as 10 percent.
  • Rise in nontraditional students. Older students, working adults and adults with families comprise a greater share of the post-secondary education population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 38 percent of college students are now over the age of 25; 25 percent are over the age of 30. And the number of students over the age of 25 are estimated to increase another 23 percent by 2019. These students are far less likely to live on campus or go full-time, and they prefer the flexibility and convenience of online courses and degree programs. In the case of UMass Boston, the institution may have been better off elevating their commuter school status, including expansion of online learning for nontraditional students.
  • Emergence of credible online options. Following an initial wave of predominantly for-profit online higher education programs, there has been a second wave of private and public nonprofit online programs over the past decade. And the enrollment in these programs — usually fully accredited and viewed more favorably by employers — has surged. For example, since 2015, the number of students enrolled in private nonprofit online programs increased by 11.3 percent. Most notable among these are Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University, with online student enrollments of approximately 75,000 and 80,000, respectively. At the same time, public online colleges and university programs, such as Arizona State University, with an online enrollment of approximately 30,000, now offer hundreds of online programs.

In addition to these developments, another source of competition to traditional higher education models will be the rise of alternative education and career pathways that will offer cheaper, faster and job-specific post-secondary learning options. These include coding boot-camps, micro-credentials and digital badge programs, among others.

The way forward for UMass Boston and similar higher education institutions may be to focus less on becoming a traditional, idyllic residential school. Instead, UMass Boston should embrace its commuter school identity — including expanding its online learning offerings — an Arizona State University of Massachusetts, if you will. That could be the risk worth taking.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary misspelled Motley's last name. We regret the error. 

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Jacob Murray Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jacob Murray is the faculty director for professional education at the Boston University School of Education.

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