Part 4 in a series.
Many liberal arts colleges in a demographic and financial trap have sought escape by seeking applicants elsewhere — traveling the country, accepting more international students or adjusting their programming or their pitch.
But Regis College, based in Weston, has thrived over the past 15 years, in part by becoming more than a college.
"One has to be smart, not beat your head against the wall to try to continue to grow undergraduate education right now," says Antoinette Hays, the college's president since 2011.
Instead, over the course of the past decade, Regis has become a university with a diversified base of students — roughly equal parts undergraduate, graduate and online — with the overall majority focused on nursing or public health.
You can see Regis's growth is not on its main campus in Weston, but 35 miles north. Since 2013, Regis staff and students have shared space with Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in the center of Lawrence, and in 2017 they renovated that space.
Big parts of the building are given over to hospital-like rooms: a mock intake desk and beds full of high-tech medical mannequins. Some appear to breathe; at least one can "give birth."
Part of educating nurses is getting them habituated to interacting with real people — from placing catheters, taking EKGs, to responding to a heart attack. Brenda Lormil, on the "Regis North" faculty, says the mannequins — which are owned by the community college — are an excellent teaching tool toward that end, even if they are a little unsettling. ("I never stay here past six," Lormil laughs.)
One of Regis's biggest programs at its Lawrence campus is an accelerated, 16-month program to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing. The program, for students who've received a prior bachelor's degree, is intense. But it allows working people to shift quickly into a career that pays well and — many students say — speaks to the soul.
Lormil understands the deep attraction of nursing; the profession pulled her in despite herself. As a teenager, Lormil says, "I wanted to be an international business woman" — so she enrolled at Johnson and Wales University.
Freshman year, Lormil was assigned to a group project. As they presented, it became pretty clear she had done all the work. Her professor wasn't impressed.
"He told me that business is not for me," Lormil remembers. "Because, 'it's a dog-eat-dog world, and your character doesn't fit.' "
Lormil, then 18, was crushed. But she dropped out and applied to Regis College to study the same trade as her mother and her aunt. "I detoured, purposefully. I was trying to be ... the different person. But it was always nursing."
Today, Lormil obviously loves her work. She's a nurse practitioner at an oncology ward at Massachusetts General Hospital, and she teaches the subject at her alma mater.
Still, Lormil says she's been impressed by the drive of the students she sees at Regis North. These are students going to college for a second time: "Their why is much deeper. There’s a lot more on the line.”
Regis itself has gone through a similar process. In the early 2000s, the college — then small, still single-sex — was struggling. Given demographic and social trends, they could only expect things to get worse.
"Being a focused liberal arts institution became challenging," says Hays, who was in charge of the school's small nursing program at the time. "People were starting to look at, 'what are the job prospects?' And we didn't have many professional programs."
So in 2007 — the same year Lormil came to campus as a student -- Regis went co-ed. And they also doubled down on a bet: expanding graduate education and opening a standalone nursing school, of which Hays was the first dean. Nurses can receive a range of credentials, from associates up to doctoral degrees. Regis has conferred nearly 7,000 nursing degrees in the past 33 years, with 592 of them coming this past year.
Teddy Richards — who's enrolled in the accelerated program — is aiming to get his bachelor's next spring. Richards grew up in Liberia and Ghana, always with one particular dream: "to go to medical school to be a doctor. That was my thing."
But after he came to the United States at 18, Richards says he balked at the time and expense between him and doctoring. Now nearly 30 and with several years of work as an EMT, he's adjusted his dream. He now wants to become a nurse practitioner as soon as possible.
Walking through campus, Richards is glad the accelerated program in Lawrence sets him up to do that, without what he sees as needless detours in the name of liberal arts.
"Colleges should be very focused," Richards says. He looks back on his time studying biology at UMass Lowell: "Kids [are] doing all these other classes that they're not really interested in. It's like, 'Why I am doing this if I'm not gonna end up using that in my work?' "
Twelve years on, Regis's bet on nursing has apparently paid off.
The college's annual revenue from tuition has doubled, while undergrads still pay relatively little to attend. Graduate and online students now make up two-thirds of Regis's enrollment, and many pay their own way. Regis is now a college in name only.
But they're not alone in this corner of the market. Other small schools, like Curry College, and much larger ones — including Northeastern University and UMass Boston — offer their own accelerated nursing programs.
It's not clear how much longer this boom can go on. Judith Paré, head of nursing at the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the state's largest nurses' union, says that while there may still be a national shortage of workers in her field, this state is becoming an exception.
Paré says she cautions her own students: "If you want to stay working in the Commonwealth, you may need to apply on average to 60 or 70 positions before you will find an opening."
But at least for now, Regis is growing, with health careers leading the way. Hays, the president, is determined to keep it that way. With the worst financial moment behind it, Hays has pushed expansion — not just to Regis North, but also the acquisition of Mount Ida College's former dental-hygiene program, complete with 13 faculty and staff and nearly 80 students.
Hays is restrained, but ambitious. She frequently invokes a mission statement inherited from the Sisters of St. Joseph, who founded the college: to "care for the dear neighbor without distinction." Hays pitches both expansions in that spirit: the dental-hygiene program is now set up to give low-cost dental care at a new facility in Waltham that opened earlier this month. And Regis North will give a career-ready option to the underserved, and predominantly Latino, community around it with courses on medical Spanish planned for the year ahead.
At the same time, Hays and her team keep their eye always on the ever-changing world of hospitals and companies outside.
"We're very industry-driven," she says, "and we want to be sure that when our students graduate that they have employment."
Hays is confident in where Regis is now, and that it can continue to turn out hundreds of work-ready nurses each year — in close cooperation with Greater Boston's medical establishment.
Do you have questions about small private colleges in Massachusetts? Fill out the form below:
Illustration by Chris Cerrato for WBUR.
This segment aired on October 23, 2019.