Meehan announces plan to create online college for adult learners in State of UMass address

BOSTON — Citing the need to preserve the university’s mission in the face of a looming demographic decline that will dramatically disrupt higher education, University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan announced plans to create a new online college for adult learners Monday in his annual State of the University address.

Meehan said the new college will become a key workforce development partner to Massachusetts employers, increase economic mobility for Massachusetts residents and generate revenue that will sustain the university over the next several decades, positioning UMass to “lead through the coming disruption and emerge stronger on the other side.”

“Over the last 18 months of research and study on this subject, it has become clear that our single greatest opportunity to preserve a thriving, healthy and prosperous UMass while meeting our workforce development mission is to take bold and intentional steps to make a UMass education more accessible to students we are not currently serving at scale,” Meehan said.

More than 300 people attended the event hosted by the UMass Foundation at the UMass Club in Boston, including Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, the UMass Board of Trustees, more than 30 state legislators and business leaders from across the state.

After focusing last year’s State of the University address on a plan to maintain affordability for students, Meehan spent significant time in his 2019 address discussing the looming demographic crisis and outlining how the university plans to survive the disruption and continue to meet its promise of “affordable excellence” to students, their families and the state.

That crisis is due to plunging birth rates during the Great Recession of 2008, which will result in a dramatic decline in the number of college-aged students in New England beginning in 2026, experts say.

Meehan said that shortage of students will leave colleges and universities with too much capacity and not enough demand at a time when the economic model in higher education is already strained, noting expert predictions that 25 percent or more of all colleges could close or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.

“Make no mistake — this is an existential threat to entire sectors of higher education, and New England is, unfortunately, ground zero,” he said.

Meehan said the new online college for adult learners will be key to strengthening the university’s position during the disruption while addressing a workforce skills gap that will be exacerbated by fewer traditional college graduates, meeting employer demand and improving economic mobility for Massachusetts residents.

Net revenue generated from the new college will be returned to the campuses to sustain the university’s core mission of educating traditional undergraduate and graduate students, he said, while the campus-based online programs already in place will continue to serve hybrid and full-time online students seeking selective bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Meehan said the goal is to turn the new online college into a national competitor in educating adult learners, and stated that models for success already exist. He cited Southern New Hampshire University, which enrolls an estimated 15,000 Massachusetts residents, as well as public universities including Purdue Global and Penn State World Campus, which have begun recruiting in Massachusetts.

“The time for us to act is now,” he said. “Over the next several years, there will be four to five major players in online education with strong regional footholds, and we intend to be one of them.”

In the 25-minute speech, Meehan also discussed the “familiar factors” threatening the university’s mission, including inflation, rising costs and lagging state support, citing a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report that state funding for public higher education in Massachusetts has decreased by 12.5 percent since 2008 when adjusted for inflation.

He expressed his support for the Cherish Act, which would return funding levels for public higher education in Massachusetts to Fiscal Year 2001 levels, and said he will continue to advocate for “any reasonable measures that preserve the promise of affordable public higher education and remove the albatross of debt from students.”

He also outlined several steps the university has taken to ensure its long-term financial stability, including:  

  • Fiscal oversight and transparency measures that have improved planning, internal controls and risk management
  • Creating a new shared services model for business transactions that will save the university $17 million each year
  • Increasing the university’s data analysis and predictive analytics capacity
  • Making strategic investments for the benefit of the five campuses, including the recent agreement with a developer for the Bayside Expo Center property adjacent to UMass Boston that will generate up to $235 million in up-front revenue for the campus and will bring additional benefits for the UMass Boston community

Meehan began the address by noting that 30 years ago this month, a commission of prominent higher education leaders, led by President Emeritus of the University of California David Saxon, published a report on the future role of UMass in the Commonwealth that would become the blueprint for the present-day UMass.  

Formally titled “Learning to Lead: Building a World-Class Public University in Massachusetts” and known as the Saxon Report, it envisioned UMass as a world-class public research university that could meet the state’s growing need for educated workers, close the education gap for minority and low-income residents, and establish a standard of excellence aligned with the overall ambitions of the state.

Meehan said that 30 years later, the report’s vision had been realized.

“Through the hard work of many people in this room and that of your predecessors, we have indeed become the world-class university the commission envisioned,” he said. “By every measure — from student demand to research impact to third-party validations — we have reached the upper echelon of public research universities in the United States and across the globe.”

He noted a number of recent milestones and achievements that underscore the five-campus system’s success, including:

  • Educating 75,000 students in the Commonwealth and three times as many Massachusetts residents as the top 8 private colleges and universities in the state combined
  • Graduating 18,000 students each spring, nearly three-quarters of whom will remain in Massachusetts to live and work
  • Conferring more degrees than any other institution in the state’s highest demand fields, such as management, education, analytics and nursing
  • Being ranked one of the best university systems in the country for three years running by U.S. News & World Report, with all four undergraduate campuses in the top tier and UMass Medical School ranked in the top 10 percent in the nation for primary care education
  • More than $6 billion in annual economic impact
  • A $670 million dollar research enterprise that conducts groundbreaking research in fields critical to the Commonwealth’s economy
  • An endowment approaching $1 billion

"Through the talent we develop, the research we conduct and the service we perform, we have become a key thread in the social, cultural and economic fabric that makes Massachusetts the greatest state in the nation,” he said.

The event featured live musical performances from several UMass student groups: The UMass Amherst Doo Wop Shop performed the National Anthem, the UMass Lowell Gospel Choir performed Eddie James’ “Freedom” to cap the address, and a UMass Boston Jazz Trio provided musical entertainment during a reception that followed.

Meehan was introduced by Chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees Rob Manning.

In his conclusion, Meehan referred to a passage in the Saxon Report that called on leaders to take “resolute action” to ensure the university reaches its full potential, and said those words from 30 years ago ring true today.

“It is a time in higher education, and in the life cycle of the University of Massachusetts, for resolute action,” he said. “We must take bold and decisive steps to ensure we continue to fulfill our critical mission of access, opportunity and excellence, and that we remain the world-class public research university the Saxon Commission envisioned 30 years ago — the world-class public research university this Commonwealth needs and deserves.”