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Piece by Piece

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

It’s hardly news that college costs have consistently risen over the past two decades, outpacing both inflation and incomes. But there are a host of resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Still, putting the pieces together takes a combination of hustle, clear communication, hard work, and often sacrifice, all in search of what students hope will be a life-changing degree.


Bryan Gross calls them “success stories” — incoming students who weren’t sure they could afford college, but somehow manage to make it happen.

“You’ll see a lot of media attention and articles about sticker shock, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, and it makes families very nervous,” said Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNEU). “But we do work very hard to make college affordable for families, and the sticker price is not what they end up paying.”

But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It is a lot of piecing things together,” said Kristin Hmieleski, Financial Aid director for Elms College. “We always tell students, ‘you’re not going to get this for free, so let’s look at the resources at hand. What can you get through federal and state aid? What has the institution already offered you by way of merit? What else can we offer based on need? Worst-case scenario, you may have to pay out of pocket or take on additional loans.’ It’s almost like a puzzle we put together.”’

It’s a puzzle that has become increasingly challenging over the past couple decades, as college costs have steadily risen, often outpacing inflation and average income. According to the College Board, which tracks these trends annually, tuition and fees at private, four-year instititions increased by 1.9% from 2016-17 to 2017-18, to an average of $34,740. Meanwhile, public, four-year institutions saw an average increase of 1.3%, to $9,970.

Those increases are substantially lower than the spikes seen during the Great Recession. In 2009-10, for example, private institutions raised tuition and fees by 5.9%, and public schools posted a 9.5% increase.

However, the College Board noted, students still shoulder a heavier burden this year, because even those modest price hikes outpaced grant aid and tax benefits. And that places more pressure on financial-aid officers to help families, well, assemble that puzzle.

The key, both Hmieleski and Gross said, is communication — and lots of it, starting early.

“We do open houses, and as prospective students are looking at Elms College, we talk about different resources they can look at,” Hmieleski said, noting that plenty of opportunities exist beyond the award package — based on academic merit and financial need — that the college puts together for each enrollee.

“They might not know every single website to look at, but we give them some hints about community resources they can look into,” she explained. “Do they belong to a church? Do the businesses their families work for offer scholarships? The students need to do some hunting themselves. Have they reached out to guidance counselors? They might know of some opportunities.”

It’s not an easy process, and it takes legwork and often sacrifice. But if the end result is a degree and a career pathway, families are more than willing to make the effort.

Knowledge Is Power

Gross said communicating with students starts well before they ever sit down in a classroom.

“Being a private institution, being well aware of the current state of the economic landscape, giving families direct and clear information regarding their financial-aid package is really important for us,” he said.

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says communication with families — both early and often — is key to helping them forge a strategy to pay for college.

To that end, WNEU started a program three years ago called Culture of Financial Wellness, which includes several components, starting with financial-aid counseling, during which officers help families navigate the process of piecing together available resources. Meanwhile, during spring open houses, financial-aid workshops are offered to inform and educate parents about the financial-aid process to help them make the right decisions for their student.

Following those are SOAR, the university’s Summer Orientation and Registration sessions, featuring presentations by Peter Bielagus, known as “America’s Financial Educator,” who provides information to parents about financing their student’s education.

The final piece of Culture of Financial Wellness continues after the student has joined the campus. The Freshman Focus program offers programming and talks to help students successfully transition to college life, including an overview session each fall on finances and spending designed to teach students about credit-card debt and making sound financial decisions in college and beyond.

“We want to educate students and help them understand the importance of living within your means,” Gross said. “That’s the circle of life — we want to help students for the rest of their lives.”

But that help begins at the financial-aid office, where the allocation of resources has been subtly shifting. This year, the College Board reports, federal loans account for 32% of all student aid, followed by institutional grants (25%), federal Pell grants (15%), tax credits and deductions (9%), state grants (6%), private and employer grants (6%), and veteran and military grants (6%).

“We put together a strategy for each student based on their academic performance,” Gross said. “We offer them scholarships, and of course federal and state grants typically get offered, and after that we have need-based grants we offer depending on their circumstances, and typically at the bottom of all that is federal work studies.”

Hmieleski said some 80 to 100 Elms students benefit from federally funded work-study jobs, 7% of which must be targeted at community-service work, such as the America Reads program administered locally by Valley Opportunity Council, in which college students tutor children after school.

“Unfortunately, federal funding has been so limited — it gets cut every year,” she said, noting that some students work at campus jobs funded by the college, while others secure part-time employment off campus.

Gross said certain enrollees benefit from special circumstances. “Veteran students are a population we work with; we help students directly apply for veterans benefits, and they might be eligible for ROTC as well.”

The bottom line, he told BusinessWest, is that students are given a full picture of what resources are available so they can figure out how to fill in the gaps, even if that means living at home.

“We want them to live on campus, but we want families to make an informed decision. It’s amazing how many families don’t even think about that,” he said. “We just don’t want families to be flat-footed when they receive their first bill.”

Beyond the Gloom and Doom

As Gross noted, he’s gratified by the success stories, but they’re not the whole story, unfortunately.

“To be honest with you, every college also has stories of families that fill out an application for federal aid, then come to us and say, ‘this is not our reality; we can’t afford to pay that.’ We work with families to come up with a plan, and it may work, but it may not work.”

In some cases, he said, students will instead opt to begin their education at a two-year community college. No matter what the outcome, though, he tries to make sure the decisions are made from a place of copious information.

“Families know that it’s not just a matter of crossing their fingers and closing their eyes, and somehow it comes together. You really have to have a plan, and you have to use college and community resources to help you through the process.”

No matter how much thought goes into a strategy, Hmieleski added, it’s impossible to de-stress the process of financial planning for college.

“No matter where you are in life, even if you have wealth, money is always stressful,” she said. “When some people hear about finances or anything involving money, their reaction is almost to shut down and not listen because they don’t feel like they’ll ever understand it.

“But we deal with a lot of first-generation, low-income students here at Elms; we are here to support those students,” she went on, noting that the college is invested not only in their ability to pay for school, but their academic success and keeping them enrolled. “OK, you’re here, you’re able to afford it — now let’s make sure you’re academically successful.”

But it begins with that first look at the unassembled puzzle, and all the decisions that go into putting it together. Hmieleski recalled one student — whose academic record was strong — that she worried about every fall, wondering if she’d be able to continue on, due to tight finances. But each year, the family somehow managed, and she graduated.

“I get goosebumps in so many situations when it looked like doom and gloom, like the student wouldn’t be able to come here, but we work on it,” she said. “And when they’re able to walk through that door, it’s a thrill.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Smart Strategy

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch was asked to explain why individuals who retain his services should look upon the fees they pay him as an investment, rather than merely an expense.

And he would spend the next several minutes answering that question in several different ways, using both words and numbers. They were all effective in getting the point home, but perhaps none more so than his simple comparison to buying a home.

“When you buy a house, there’s a mortgage broker, a Realtor, and a lawyer to ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly,” said Metsch, president of East Longmeadow-based the College Advisor of New England. “When people buy a college education, very often, it’s on the emotions of a teenager, because the parents are going through the same learning curve at the time the kid is. So there’s no way to protect their $250,000 investment or their $125,000 investment, whatever it might be.

“If you look at what someone might pay me in fees, that’s about one-fifth what someone would pay to the lawyer, for the Realtor’s commission, and the broker when they buy that house,” he went on. “And the investment is nearly as big; think about it.”

As noted, he had several other methods for answering that question, including a very powerful use of numbers. Indeed, 91% of what he called “College Advisor students” — those who arrived on campus through his assistance — stayed that their enrolled college for four years, compared to the national average rate of 51%, a huge consideration given the soaring sticker price of a college education today.

Metsch, who’s been helping students and parents make what he called “more scientific decisions” about which college to attend for more than two decades now, offers these words and numbers often, because even though his profession has grown considerably in recent years in terms of the numbers of people handling such work, many people are still not aware that such advisors exist and that they can make an extremely daunting process far less so.

Getting that message across is one of the items on Metsch’s do-list, but he’s far busier handling a client list involving parents and students across the region. He provides a wide array of services and coaching on everything from when students should take certain standardized tests to which schools would make the best fits, to how parents can go about paying for the school their child eventually settles on.

Slicing through it all, Metsch said he and his staff help “reduce the movement in a lot of moving targets.”

That’s a colorful phrase he used to describe how his company helps take time, complexity, confusion, and anxiety out of a process that might (maybe ‘would’ is the better word) otherwise involve much larger quantities of each.

When asked how it does this, Metsch would go on in great detail, and we’ll get to those of those thoughts later, but he summed most of it up by saying his company works very hard to get young students to take ownership of the college-selection process, a necessary quality given the high financial stakes involved, but also because many of them don’t take such ownership, and with often dire consequences, poor decision making, and missed opportunities.

For this issue and its focus on paying for college, BusinessWest talked at length with Metsch about his business, his profession, and the mindset students and parents should take as they approach one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make.

Schools of Thought

There’s a map on the wall in the lobby area of the College Advisor’s suite of offices. It identifies essentially every college and university in the country, and at a glance, it’s quite revealing.

Massachusetts has so many of these institutions, there isn’t room for all the names within the confines of the state’s borders, thus they’re placed out over the Atlantic Ocean. In Wyoming, by way of contrast, there are just a few lines for the entire state.

Knowing where the colleges are, however, is just a very small part of the equation when it comes to the process of choosing a school, and the many moving parts, or targets, as Metsch called them, now explain why this profession of college advising has grown considerably after the past quarter-century.

Back in the early ’90s, this was the domain of high-school guidance counselors and a few individuals (mostly women) with backgrounds in social work who often worked part-time out of their homes helping parents and students navigate school-selection matters and options for financing an education.

Over the years, as many of these issues became more complex and parents and students realized they could use some assistance, more of it became available, although there are still not many people doing this kind of work, said Metsch.

And there are tiers within this profession, he noted, adding that some financial advisors will add these services to their portfolios, often as a way to sell more annuities and related products. Parents should look for individuals who can put the letters CEP (certified educational planner) on their business card, said Metsch, adding that he has done so for years now.

As such an advisor, he said he provides counsel on a broad range of subjects, which, as noted earlier, include such things as tests and when they should be taken, colleges and which ones might make the right fit, timelines for decision making, and how to pay for an education.

He said that many parents and students are still of the belief that they can do all this themselves, perhaps with some help from the high-school guidance counselor, and often find out that they’re in over their head or that they’re wasting money and an equally precious commodity — time.

He offered an anecdote to get some of his points across.

“I got a call two months ago from a family that said they thought they could do this on their own,” he recalled. One of the parents said, ‘when we went to Northeastern University, we realized they didn’t have the major my daughter wants. She was interested in looking at the school, but she didn’t realize they didn’t have her major; that was half a day we didn’t need to spend.’”

Busy parents don’t have many half-days to waste, he went on, adding that this family may have been using outdated information or relying on word of mouth. In any case, the proper research wasn’t done before the student and parents gassed up the car and drove across the state.

That’s one very simplistic example of how unscientific many searches are, said Metsch, adding that his business specializes in removing the prefix from that word.

And it does so with every aspect of the process, he added, noting that his team, which has more than 90 years of combined experience, has visited more than 550 colleges and universities across the country and can offer first-hand insight into a broad range of schools.

Staying with that anecdote he offered earlier, Metsch said this was a case where the parent clearly wanted the student to take ownership of the process — and that student did, but wasn’t properly equipped, or properly motivated (or both), to carry out that assignment responsibly.

Which brings him back to that notion of moving targets.

“If you look at financial-aid eligibility, many parents have no idea what they can afford,” he explained. “They’re just looking at a $60,000 price tag, and that’s paralyzing them. Then you have the question about how this school figures out who gets scholarships or need-based aid, so that’s a moving target. The kid doesn’t know what he wants to study, so that’s a moving target. So where do you start the process?

“We’re able to come up with a plan that takes into account how much it’s going to cost at a variety of schools based on the different formulas schools use,” he went on. “We can do an eligibility analysis, and, like an accountant, can reduce your tax burden and increase your eligibility for financial aid.”

There is both an eligibility review and an affordability review, he went on, which really does a deep dive into just what parents can realistically afford, taking into account a host of factors including everything from how loans are paid back to how many children the couple has, to how much money the family will save when the child leaves the house for college.

“Some families may not be able to afford what the formulas say they have to pay,” Metsch went on. “So that means we have to look more at schools where the student can get academic scholarships. We may also say to a student, ‘here’s the threshold you want to get your test scores to, because if you just go up another 20 points, you’ll get another $10,000 from this particular school.’”

Grade Expectations

This is what Metsch means by a more scientific approach to this complex, time-consuming process.

And such science is obviously critical given the high stakes for all those involved and the long-term implications of the decisions being made.

“There are all these moving targets,” he said in conclusion. “And if you can’t freeze-frame them, it’s a complete crapshoot, and no parent wants that.”

And that’s probably the best reason, he went on, why people should look at his services as an investment, not an expense.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Screen Test

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says online education is a natural outgrowth of Bay Path’s efforts to serve non-traditional students.

This year marks the 15th consecutive year of growth in what’s known as online, or distance, learning at U.S. colleges and universities. But a newer trend is seeing students fresh out of high school — not just the working adults that have dominated the online-learning world — logging on as well. At a time of changing demographics in higher education, area schools that have embraced the distance model simply say they’re meeting students where they want to be.

Before online college courses were a thing — heck, before ‘online’ was a thing — attending college was tougher for some than others, and for many, finding a path to a degree while working and raising a family was too high a scheduling hurdle.

Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College (TAWC) at Bay Path University, said Bay Path has long been responsive to that need — specifically, the Saturday programs it started offering in 1999 for students who had work or family responsibilities during the week.

“It was intended to be an additional entry point to higher education, for students who didn’t enroll right after high school, or tried to go to another college but never actually completed,” she told BusinessWest. “The options at the time — evening programs and traditional semester-based models — were not conducive to working adults supporting a family.”

Around 2007, she went on, the concept of online learning (also known as distance learning) started to gain traction, and when Bay Path made forays in that direction, feedback was positive. The American Women’s College — which offers a host of online degree programs, from accounting to criminal justice; from child psychology to food science and safety — was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to higher education to working women who do not have a college degree.

“You can manage your own time and work on your own schedule, as opposed to trying to keep to a certain schedule every week. It gives you that flexibility,” Gould noted.

Online classes allow students to engage in classroom activity — much of which takes place on forums and discussion boards — on their own schedule. And that ‘additional entry point’ isn’t just anecdotal: 70% percent of TAWC students are first-generation college attendees, one-third are single mothers, and more than half are Pell-eligible, which speaks to economic need.

At American International College (AIC), a host of degree programs in the health sciences — a master’s degree in nursing, an RN-to-BSN program, and an occupational therapy doctorate, to name a few — meet similar scheduling needs, particularly for professionals already working in those fields who seek advanced degrees without having take time away from work.

“Obviously, the clinical piece has to be on the ground, but all the didactic coursework occurs online,” said Cesarina Thompson, dean of AIC’s School of Health Sciences.

Karin Moyano Camihort, dean of Online Programs at Holyoke Community College (HCC), said her department understands the importance of work, family, and other commitments, and the college’s online degree and certificate programs make it easier for busy people to earn a degree without sacrificing priorities.

“Our students choose online for a variety of reasons,” she told BusinessWest. “Some are working adults that are looking for flexibility; some are college students from other institutions that join our summer or accelerated courses, and some are high-school students starting their college experience ahead of schedule.”

HCC’s three most popular degrees — business administration, liberal arts, and criminal justice — can all be completed fully online, on campus, or both, by taking some courses online and some on campus. “Plus, our partnerships with four-year colleges and universities make transfer easier,” she noted.

In short, online learning at the college level is expanding at a rapid rate, both locally and nationally — and, increasingly, it’s more than just working adults logging on.

Clicking with the Public

In the 2017 study “Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” the Babson Survey Research Group revealed that online student enrollments increased for the 14th straight year in 2016-17, with more than 31% of all college students taking at least one distance-education course — and all evidence suggests the uptick has continued this year.

“The growth of distance enrollments has been relentless,” wrote study co-author Julia Seaman, research director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.”

Public institutions command the largest portion of distance-education students, with 67.8% of all students studying online. And a handful of colleges and universities have broadly embraced the model, with 5% of institutions accounting for almost half of all distance-education students.

The study also showed that distance learning doesn’t necessarily mean actual distance: 52.8% of all students who took at least one online course also took a course on-campus, and 56.1% of those who took only online courses reside in the same state as the institution at which they are enrolled. Fewer than 1% of all distance students are located outside the U.S.

“Online has really grown quite a bit over the years and become very sophisticated in how the whole learning experience is managed,” Thompson said, explaining that AIC uses a platform called Blackboard, one of several management systems in use today, that offers multiple ways for professors and students to interact online, from message boards to videoconferencing. “It can be asynchronous, with students logging in whenever they want to, and can also be arranged as a synchronous experience, with all students online at a certain time.”

Cesarina Thompson

Cesarina Thompson says AIC’s online programs offer opportunities for face-to-face interaction, but enough tools that those meetings aren’t always necessary.

For those who might wonder how engaged students are, that’s something instructors can easily track.

“The technology is advanced nowadays, and you really can engage students much more frequently; in an online learning environment, I might say to a student, ‘I want to see you’re logging in at least twice a week and entering responses to these questions,’” she explained. “In a classroom setting, a student can stand in the shadows and never say a word, but with analytics, we who know who’s logging in, when, and how many times.”

Gould said classes at TAWC are run in a cohort model, meaning the students navigate through the courses together, although they don’t necessarily have to be online at the same time. Often, the lecture-hall experience is replaced by reading offline, while online ‘classroom’ time is spent on projects, group work, active learning, and lab-based activities.

However, this model not always the easiest option, she said.

“What people don’t realize is the time-management piece is actually very tricky,” she noted. “It takes a lot of self-motivation and a certain skill set to be able to block out times. Some folks end up doing a lot of work when they’re exhausted, late in the evening. So, I don’t think it’s easy by any means, but it appeals to people who want to feel in control of when they work.”

Meanwhile, recognizing that person-to-person interaction is a big part of college life, Bay Path has created a series of social-engagement opportunities for its online students, from Facebook communities to support from peer mentors who can answer questions and provide feedback, to national learning communities online, where students learn about organizations in their field, job postings, and area events. “We want to keep them engaged as much as possible both inside and outside the classroom.”

Moyano Camihort said HCC offers fellowship programs for faculty where they enhance their online-instruction skills and share best practices.

“Our online faculty also teach on campus, so there is a real connection to our college,” she went on. “We have a brick-and-mortar building. We also have a dynamic and innovative online learning environment where students connect with instructors and peers, access lectures and materials, submit assignments, work in groups, and learn online.”

The results, she went on, are evident in enrollment figures — one-third of all credits currently available at HCC are online. “Our students prefer online courses, and even though they will tell you that our courses are challenging, they continue to choose online.”

Virtual Revolution

The flip side, of course, is the effect on colleges when it comes to on-campus enrollment, and the long-term impacts remain unclear. According to the Babson study, the number of students studying on a campus dropped by almost 1.2 million, or 6.4%, between 2012 and 2016.

Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson and a co-author of the study, expects this trend to persist in 2018 and beyond. He also believes the number of students who only take on-campus courses will probably keep dropping, in part because more students are combining online and in-person learning.

Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, says online degree programs in 2018 will increase their use of modern technologies to enhance their curriculums, including a move toward virtual and augmented reality, which can allow students to learn in simulated environments, and remote technologies, such as videoconferencing and robotic telepresence, to allow for more face-to-face interaction among students and instructors.

At the American Women’s College, the demographics still largely favor a mix of working mothers and professionals who want to advance in their careers, but there has also been an increase in students under age 25, who now account for 10% of online enrollment.

“I do think we’re going to see a shift in higher-education enrollment for these types of alternative models, for a number of reasons,” Gould said. “Financially, the residential experience is becoming outpriced for a number of students. I think we’ll see younger working students who are juggling school and life, and as we see future generations becoming college-ready, expectations around technology and virtual engagement will only be on the rise.

“I think,” she went on, “we are only going to see continuous, growing demand for online options.”

Thompson agreed that online courses aren’t limited to working adults, and some younger students prefer a blended model, mixing online with traditional or hybrid courses, the latter being programs that require some physical classroom time amid the online coursework.

“We’re online, but we still draw from a local market, so there’s still the possibility of face-to-face contact between faculty and students,” she said. “If they want to stop by and have a meeting, we can do that, but there are enough tools online that it’s not always necessary.”

One positive for colleges, she noted, is that, at a time when the region’s demographics are shifting older, the ability to capture working adults will be a boon for colleges that embrace online and distance models.

“With an aging population, a decline in birth rates, and an outmigration to other states, it’s going to be a challenge for institutions of higher education going forward,” she said. “With a declining high-school-graduate population, we have to adapt to other populations who may not be able to make it to class as a full-time student — and utilizing online and other flexible modes of delivery is certainly one way to do that.”

It’s all about adapting to a 21st-century student body, Gould said, that is far more comfortable with high-tech solutions than previous generations.

“Students are becoming so dependent on technology to do so much in their lives, but trying to figure out how to fit all those things together is not an easy task,” she said. “It takes time to figure out, and it takes finances. It’s expensive to integrate technology; it’s not a cheap pursuit if you want to do it well. But, from a mission perspective, that’s the only way to do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Positive Steps

Maria Rodriguez-Furlow

Maria Rodriguez-Furlow says her ‘dancing with the stars’ appearance is much like her decision to pursue a college degree later in life — a leap of faith.

Maria Rodriguez-Furlow says she isn’t exactly sure why her name came up — although she has some theories — but she’s ultimately glad it did.

Indeed, her participation in the upcoming Dancing with the Stars-like competition — which will certainly comprise the defining moments of Bay Path University’s second annual President’s Gala on June 2 at the Sheraton in Springfield — will be fun and support a very good cause: college scholarships for women and men who need them.

But it will also be poignant, if not symbolic, on several levels.

And this brings us back to that question about why she was chosen as a contestant.

While Rodriguez-Furlow likes to dance and her colleagues at Bay Path’s American Women’s College recognize that — “they know that when there’s music and there’s me, I’m moving,” she said — there’s more to her selection, she believes.

And it comes down to the fact that she embodies just the type of individual who will likely receive one of these scholarships — she’s a non-traditional student in every sense of that phrase — and this dance competition, like her decision to go to college somewhat later in life, was a leap of faith.

“I decided to complete my undergraduate degree as an adult — I was in my mid-30s at the time, I had a full-time job, I had two young kids,” said Rodriguez-Furlow, adjunct faculty hiring manager for the American Women’s College. “And I enrolled in what was called the Saturday program; you went for 12-hour days. I was scared, but I knew that earning a degree was something I needed to do for myself.”

In press releases from the university concerning the event, Rodriguez-Furlow’s name is followed by ’10 G’12. Roughly translated, that means she earned her bachelor’s degree from Bay Path in 2010 and her MBA two years later. It also means she’s already ‘danced a mile in their shoes,’ the name given to the president’s gala and a nod to the challenges facing those who will receive the scholarships it generates.

We’ll get back to Rodriguez-Furlow for more thoughts on that later, but first, her competition for that night in June: two members of the business community who have agreed to step out of their comfort zones — way, way out, if you listen to them.

Indeed, Patty Faginski says the woman who called to ask her to participate let her know something intriguing was up by prefacing her query with another one: “are you sitting down?”

She was, which helped, Faginski told BusinessWest.

As for Delcie Bean, who really needs no introduction in this space, but we’ll do it anyway — he’s the founder and president of Paragus Strategic IT and also a Bay Path trustee — he said his participation in this event came about not with a single phone call, but maybe six to nine months of “gentle prodding and light encouragement” by his estimates.

To put things in perspective, when asked just how far out of his comfort zone Bean was stepping with this assignment, he kept his answer short, sweet, and direct.

“As far as you can imagine.”

But like his two competitors, he never really considered saying ‘no,’ because, and we’re paraphrasing here, the cause is that good, the challenge is that intriguing, and the message sent by taking part is that compelling.

“I think it’s relatively easy to donate one’s time or even money to an organization you support,” said Bean. “However, being willing to step well outside of your comfort zone and learn a brand new skill in order to help support the organization felt more meaningful and impactful to me, and aligns with my desire to support the organization in any way that I can.”

Elaborating, he said it did take all those months of prodding to get him to do this. And while he already considers himself a winner just by participating, should be win the coveted mirror-ball trophy that goes to the champion?

“I would proudly display it right on my desk,” he told BusinessWest, “as it would represent me overcoming my fear, stepping outside my comfort zone, and, in the end, being successful.”

Faginski echoed those thoughts. She said she was first approached a few months ago and said her one of her first thoughts was ‘I always wanted to take dance lessons,’ or words to that effect.

And now, she is, along with her fellow competitors. Those lessons are being provided by Daryll (a Bay Path graduate) and Gynnar Sverrisson. There’s one a week, said Faginski, adding, with a laugh, that such a volume of instruction is certainly needed as she learns a dance called the ‘jive.’

As for Rodriguez-Furlow, she said having already walked a mile in the shoes of those for whom the scholarships are intended made it easy to agree to dance another mile.

“That’s why I didn’t hesitate when I was asked,” she explained, adding that, through her experiences with first gaining her bachelor’s degree and then her MBA, Bay Path has enabled her to believe she can accomplish pretty much anything she sets her mind to.

And that includes winning the mirror-ball trophy.

She’s not sure that will happen, but she is sure, as are her competitors, that they’ve already won something important just by competing.

The real winners, of course, are those who will receive the scholarships generated by this truly unique event.

For more information on the event, visit www.baypath.edu/gala.

—George O’Brien

Education Sections

The New Faces of Medical School

First-year medical students Betsy McGovern

First-year medical students Betsy McGovern

Prithwijit Roychowdhury

Prithwijit Roychowdhury

Kathryn Norman

Kathryn Norman

Colton Conrad

Colton Conrad

Like most first-year students, Kathryn Norman entered medical school in August not knowing exactly what to expect.

But there were certainly some things she never expected.

Like a curriculum that included a visit to the Hampden County jail in Ludlow, where she and fellow classmates talked with inmates about their health and well-being and learned first-hand how social issues and mental-health conditions have impacted their lives and put them on a path to incarceration.

Or a visit to a local food store, where teams were assigned the task of taking $125 in food stamps and buying a month’s worth of food for a single mother with diabetes and her daughter, all while trying to keep proper nutrition as the basis for the spending decisions.

Or a visit from an auto mechanic who would discuss the questions he asks a car owner to diagnose problems, with the goal of driving home the message that a similar methodology — and many of those same questions — would be utilized by a physician seeking to fully diagnose an issue with a patient.

But all this and more has been part of the first five months of experiences at what is known as the University of Massachusetts Medical School – Baystate, the Springfield campus, if you will, of the Worcester-based institution.

“The very first patient that I ever spoke to was someone who was incarcerated,” Norman said of her start in medical school. “And just getting to hear about the challenges these inmates had and bringing together the medical conditions they have, which are pretty complex, and the social conditions they have, that’s very exciting.”

That’s a word used often by the 22 students enrolled at UMass Medical, who spend one day every two weeks in Springfield and, more specifically, at the facility created by Baystate Health at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute on Main Street. They are there for a class devoted to developing their interviewing skills, something not often thought about when it comes to a medical-school curriculum, but a nonetheless critical part of the equation when it comes to being a good doctor, as Dr. Kevin Hinchey explained.

Dr. Kevin Hinchey

Dr. Kevin Hinchey says the PURCH program puts emphasis on the social determinants of health and prevention, not merely treatment, of illnesses.

He’s chief Education officer and senior associate dean for Education at UMass Medical School — Baystate, and he said that, while students are mastering the art and science of asking questions, they are gaining a unique perspective on the many aspects of population health by hearing, and absorbing, the answers.

Such as those they heard while visiting an area homeless shelter.

“There was a gentleman there who has diabetes; the students were interviewing him, and he said he keeps a candy bar by the side of his bed,” Hinchey recalled. “When they asked him why, he said ‘because it’s nutrition, it has a lot of calories in it, and it doesn’t spoil.’

“This is one of the social determinants of health,” he went on. “We talk about a food desert in downtown Springfield … you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, so you get other foods. That conversation becomes important, because later, when you see that same person in your office and his blood sugar is 400, you might say that he needs insulin. But because you saw him there (at the homeless shelter), you say ‘no, he needs a refrigerator.’ It changes your concept of the disease and gives you a real example of people thinking, ‘as a doctor, I’m reacting to things; can’t I get more upstream and do some more prevention?’”

Indeed, through participation in an initiative known as PURCH (Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health), students are getting a different kind of learning experience as they work on their interviewing skills, one that Rebecca Blanchard, assistant dean for Education at UMass Medical School — Baystate, and senior director of Educational Affairs at Baystate Health, summed up by saying that what differentiates it is not what’s being taught, but how and where, and also in the way these experiences motivate students.

And to get that point across, she talked more about that visit to the homeless shelter.

“This is an interviewing class; students are building skills in interviewing — having a conversation to gain information. It’s also a track focused on how population health and disparities intersect in a human way,” she said, adding that, through their various experiences, students move beyond the act of treating sick patients and into the all-important realm of advocacy.

“They come back from these experiences asking questions that are advocacy questions,” she went on. “They ask ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ and ‘how can we help?’”

For this issue and its focus on the healthcare workforce, BusinessWest visited the Baystate facility and talked with Hinchey, Blanchard, and several students about the unique approach that is PURCH, as well as the many unique learning experiences they’ve already shared.

Body of Evidence

As he talked about the process of applying to medical schools and the factors that weighed on his decision concerning where to go, Colton Conrad, from North Carolina, started by saying he first focused on schools with respectable primary-care rankings and also an emphasis on patient care rather than research.

Through their experiences in the PURCH program, Rebecca Blanchard

Through their experiences in the PURCH program, Rebecca Blanchard says, students training to become doctors also take on the role of advocates.

Those criteria put UMass Medical on his relatively short list, he went on, adding that, while he was applying, he noticed a secondary application “for this thing called PURCH.” Intrigued, he went on the website and did some reading.

Actually, it was only about three paragraphs, but it was more than enough to get his full attention.

“What I gained from those three paragraphs was that this was a branch of UMass Med School that was starting up the year I was starting school to take future physicians out of the classroom, out of a standard hospital setting, and get them involved in the community,” he recalled, “with the goal of better understanding the people and the patients they serve — to understand them on a deeper level than just illnesses.

“And I thought that was really cool,” he went on, adding that this quick synopsis was enough to prompt him to apply. And the visits to Worcester and then Springfield were enough to convince him that his search was pretty much over.

“It felt like … it wasn’t just a place where I wanted to be; the people also wanted me to be there,” he explained. “That was the first time I felt that at a medical school.”

With that, there was considerable nodding of the heads gathered around the conference-room table as BusinessWest spoke with several students enrolled in PURCH.

Collectively, they used that word ‘cool’ several more times as they talked about both those experiences that take place, as that short description on the website noted, outside the classroom and outside the hospital, and also about what it means for their overall medical-school experience.

Norman said PURCH adds what she called “another layer” to her education, an important one not available in the traditional classroom setting.

“Our education has been so much more grounded in actually understanding real people and the real lives they have,” she said. “And these are opportunities that I haven’t seen our classmates in Worcester have.”

Betsy McGovern, from Andover, agreed, and to get her points across, she revisited her experiences at the Ludlow jail, which were memorable on many levels, but especially for the unexpectedly candid conversations between students and inmates.

“Our inmate was talking about his struggles with diabetes and his family history of diabetes, and he mentioned, very briefly, a domestic-violence incident that occurred between his family and his mother,” she recalled, adding that the students involved were at first unsure about whether to probe deeper on that topic, but eventually did, in part because the inmate was able and willing to open up, but also because it was important to do so.

Indeed, there are many contributing factors to one’s health and well-being, McGovern went on, and traumatic experiences such as witnessing domestic violence are certainly one of them. Asking patients about them is difficult and awkward, but it’s as important as asking them about their diabetes. And gaining experience with such hard questions — and the resulting answers — is a critical part of becoming a good interviewer and, more importantly, a competent clinician.

And something else as well — an advocate, said Prithwijit Roychowdhury, another first-year student known to his colleagues longing for something shorter and easier to pronounce as ‘Prith.’

He told BusinessWest that, through their experiences in PURCH, students gain a greater appreciation for those social determinants and thus, perhaps, a better understanding of the importance of prevention, rather than simply treatment of illnesses.

“I think a lot of us are interested in being advocates and policymakers potentially, or even researchers working on policy or how well certain policies are working,” said Roychowdhury, who is from Worcester. “And to that end, getting a diverse exposure from a variety of different groups of people helps to contextualize the things you might want to advocate for.

“And as medical students who are interested in population health, we all know that it’s not purely the encounter with the patient in the examination room that matters,” he went on. “It’s about the broader context: what are the kinds of policies that are causing this particular patient to have a child who gets exposed to lead or arsenic, or are there reasons why a family has a long history of diabetes?”

All these comments help explain why the PURCH curriculum, and this interviewing class, were structured in this way, said Blanchard and Henchey, adding that the goal is to motivate students to look beyond the patient’s condition and to the big picture — the factors that made this condition possible and even inevitable, with an eye toward prevention.

“We’re getting students involved in advocacy and those discussions about what can be done to improve population health early on,” said Blanchard. “There’s genuine curiosity to be actively part of the solution, and it’s quite exciting for all of the faculty to see it from that lens.”

Learning Curves

Conrad told BusinessWest that one of the most important aspects of the road trips taken by the PURCH students is the debriefing — his word — that goes on afterward.

“When we go out as a group for these experiences, we come back and we talk about them,” he explained. “And it’s really interesting to hear everyone’s perspective, because just about everyone in PURCH has different backgrounds, different life stories.”

And these debriefings have become learning experiences in their own right, he went on, using the trips to the homeless shelter and jail (half the class visited each one) as an example.

“We all came back from those trips, and it seemed like everyone had very similar stories even though we were with very different populations,” he explained. “We all found that most of our patients had these pre-existing, oftentimes mental-health conditions that were playing out in the worst ways in every aspect of their lives.

“It’s really easy to look at the prison population or the homeless population and make fairly gross generalizations,” he went on. “But after having our debriefing, it’s a little harder to do that, except to say that a lot of people have underlying issues that are affecting their lives so negatively that they are put in situations where they’re homeless or they’re incarcerated or they are drug addicts. Out of all these experiences, what I’ve gained the most is looking at people beyond what their particular illness is at that moment; whatever they’re presenting with that day isn’t even close to the full story.”

This, in a nutshell, is what PURCH is all about, and Conrad’s comments, and those of his fellow classmates, effectively bring to life that three-paragraph description of the program that drew them in and eventually drew them to Springfield.

There are many social determinants of health, and each one plays a role in what brings a patient to a physician’s office on a given day. Some of the biggest are the many challenges that are part and parcel to living at or below the poverty line, challenges that drive home the point that there are often huge barriers to doing the right thing when it comes to one’s health and well-being.

Which explains why that visit to the grocery store carrying $125 in food stamps was so eye-opening, said Norman, adding that there’s a big difference between reading about such issues in a book or news article and seeing them first-hand.

There were fruits and vegetables at this store, but they were too expensive and they would perish, she noted, adding that those pushing the cart had to steer it up different aisles.

Conrad, who was in the same group, was actually able to bring personal experience to bear.

“My family was on food stamps for a while when I was growing up, and I remember my mom having to make some of those tough decisions,” he recalled. “And it was weird to be in her situation but in a simulation.”

By the time the group arrived at the checkout line, the cart was full of rice, beans, pasta, and other items that were in bulk, inexpensive, and transportable, said Norman, adding that those who participated in the exercise left the store with large doses of frustration.

And that led Roychowdhury back to his thoughts about advocacy.

“We need to think about what we can do about these issues, such as the food choices that might lead to diabetes,” he explained. “Regardless of where we end up … if we end up in a hospital, what can we do to advocate for our board of trustees or our administration to help create and implement programs focused on education regarding diabetes or even creating a diabetes pump clinic?

“These are things already happening at Baystate and are concrete examples we can draw from,” he went on. “They give us a lot of insight into maybe how to implement these in our population health tool kit, not purely as a clinician, but as a population-health advocate.”

Outside the Box

Returning to that visit to the food store one more time, Conrad said it was quite lifelike, but not quite the real thing, and for several reasons.

Indeed, he recalls Roychawdhury, also part of his group, advising that they buy food with a lower glycemic index. “I said, ‘dude, I don’t even know what that means; how are we expecting the average person to make healthy choices for their diabetes based on a glycemic index when I don’t know what that is?’

“Also, we didn’t have a screaming kid in our cart as we doing our shopping, and we were able to take our cars; we didn’t have to take the bus and fit everything for a month into three bags,” he went on, adding that these missing ingredients would have made the assignment that much more difficult, as it was for some people who were tackling that exercise for real on the same day his team was.

The screaming child was missing, but just about everything else was there. It was real, hands-on, outside the box, and certainly outside the classroom.

As noted earlier, Norman and her classmates didn’t know quite what to expect in their first year of medical school. But they were definitely not expecting learning experiences like these.

Experiences that will make them better interviewers — and better doctors.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Life’s Work

Lisa Rapp

Lisa Rapp says many biotech students find inspiration in the fact that their work may someday make a difference — for example, in developing a key new drug.

For college students — or career changers — seeking a career path with plenty of opportunity close to home, biotechnology in Massachusetts is certainly enjoying an enviable wave.

For example, drug research and development — one key field in the broad world of biotech — has been surging in Massachusetts for well over a decade, and isn’t slowing down, according to the annual report released in November by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, or MassBio.

According to that report, Massachusetts has more jobs classified as biotechnology R&D than any other state (see table below), with 34,366 currently employed — a 40% increase since 2007 — barely edging out California, a state with six times the Bay State’s population, and a well-defined high-tech landscape.

Meanwhile, the total number of biopharma workers in Massachusetts rose by nearly 5% in 2016, to 66,053, a 28% growth rate since 2007, which was the year former Gov. Deval Patrick launched a 10-year, $1 billion life-sciences investment program. More recently, Gov. Charlie Baker renewed the state’s commitment to the industry when he announced a five-year, $500 million ‘life sciences 2.0’ initiative.


“Massachusetts is historically one of the first states that got into biotechnology, then Deval Patrick made a real financial commitment, and provided funding, to try to keep it here,” said Lisa Rapp, who chairs the associate-degree Biotechnology program at Springfield Technical Community College, adding that Cambridge has long been the key hub, but biotech companies can be found throughout the Commonwealth.

Still, while the industry is growing rapidly, Rapp noted that biotechnology often is not on the radar of people considering their career options. Biotechnology encompasses a broad range of applications that use living organisms such as cells and bacteria to make useful products. Current applications of biotechnology include industrial production of pharmaceuticals such as vaccines and insulin, genetic testing, DNA fingerprinting, and genetic engineering of plants.

“I don’t think many students are aware how many jobs there are in the state. There are more jobs the farther east you go, but there are absolutely jobs here too,” she said, noting that research and development companies tend to cluster closer to Boston, while Western Mass. tends to be stronger with biomanufacturing.

The research and development job gains come as the state’s collective pipeline of drugs is rapidly expanding. According to the MassBio report, companies headquartered in the state have 1,876 drugs in various stages of development, nearly half of which — 912 — are being tested in human trials. That’s a significant increase from last year, when 1,149 drugs were in development, including 455 in human trials. Treatments for cancer, neurological disorders, and infections are among the most popular.

“There are more opportunities now than ever to get good jobs in Massachusetts,” Rapp said. “The state has the highest concentration of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in the world.”

“We’re in the middle of a genomic revolution right now, on the cusp of this brave new world,” said Thomas Mennella, associate professor of Biology at Bay Path University, who directs the master’s program in Applied Laboratory Science & Operations, which has become a key graduate degree in the biotech world (more on that later).

“My read on the field is that no one is sure where this is going to go, but everyone believes it’s going somewhere special,” he went on. “This generation now coming out will advance that revolution, and we’re preparing them the best we can to make them as adaptable as possible and follow the flow wherever the field leads.”

Meeting the Need

Since 2012, Rapp said, STCC has received $375,000 in grants to enhance its Biotechnology program, and especially the cutting-edge equipment and supplies on which students learn current techniques in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

“Our curriculum is designed to meet the ever-expanding need for trained biotechnology personnel, she added, noting that students who complete the two-year program can apply for jobs in the biopharma industry, or may advance to four-year institutions to pursue higher degrees in biotechnology.

“The career-track associate degree is meant to lead to direct employment in the field, and then we have a transfer track for students looking to transfer to a four-year college and get a bachelor’s degree or additional education,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s about half and half, but the last few years, there has been a little more interest in the transfer pathway.”

Bay Path’s bachelor’s-degree program has evolved over time, Mennella said, first in response to industry talk that students nationally weren’t emerging with high-tech instrumentation skills, and then — when programs morphed to emphasize those skills — that job applicants were highly technically trained, but not thinking scientifically.

“Our degree here is meant to bridge that gap, meet in the middle,” he explaned. “They’re graduating with the best of both worlds.”

But he called the master’s program in Applied Laboratory Science & Operations the “cherry on top of the program,” because it sets up biotech undergrads with the tools they need to manage a lab — from project management to understanding the ethical and legal implications of their work — which, in turn, leads to some of the more lucrative and rewarding areas of their field.

“We’ve packaged four courses together as an online graduate certificate program, so even students who just want to learn how to manage a lab and manage people can take those four online courses as a graduate certificate,” he explained.

The idea, Mennella said, is to make sure graduates are as competitive as they can be, in a field that — like others in Massachusetts, from precision manufacturing to information technology — often has more job opportunities available than qualified candidates. He wants his graduates to demonstrate, within six months to a year, that they can slide into lab-management positions that, in the Bay State, pay a median salary of almost $120,000.

“The state is hungry for highly skilled technicians that can do the day-to-day work to keep the lab running,” he noted. “We want them geared toward the really good technical jobs in this area, but have that second [managerial] purpose in mind. We’re striking both sides of the coin.”

Cool, Fun — and Meaningful

Rapp noted that many students are looking for a challenging role in medical research that doesn’t involve patient contact, and a biotechnology degree is a clear path to such a career.

“Generally, they have some underlying interest in science — they think science is cool and fun, which, of course, it is. And with laboratory jobs, they might have an interest in science and not necessarily in patient care,” she explained. “And they like the hands-on work in a laboratory setting.”

Whether working for pharmaceutical companies, developing and testing new drugs, or for biomanufacturing companies working on medical devices, or even in a forensics lab, opportunities abound, she said.

“I feel like many students want to feel like they’re doing something meaningful here,” Rapp added. “If they’re involved in designing or testing drugs, helping some future patient, I feel that’s a message that reonates with the students — that maybe they’ll be doing a job that helps someone in some way.”

At a recent Biotechnology Career Exploration Luncheon at STCC, professors from area colleges discussed opportunities in the field, and agreed that job reports like the one from MassBio may only scratch the surface when it comes to opportunities in a field that grows more intriguing by the year.

“Biochemistry and molecular-biology principles are critical in a number of growing fields in health and technology,” said Amy Springer, lecturer and chief undergraduate advisor at UMass Amherst. “Having a fundamental knowledge in these topics provides a student with translatable skills suitable for a range of areas, including discovery research, medical diagnostics, treatments and engineering, and environmental science.”

As Mennella said, it’s a brave new world — and a story that’s only beginning to unfold.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Connecting to a Better Future

online-medi-517935648useIt’s no secret that hospitals and other healthcare settings are pushing for nurses with higher education levels, but it can be difficult for a working RN, often with plenty of family responsibilities, to go back to school. The RN to BSN Completer Program at the American Women’s College of Bay Path University solves that issue with a fully online format and plenty of support to help students succeed — and open doors that had previously been closed.

The 22 registered nurses who graduated in May from the American Women’s College of Bay Path University with their bachelor’s degrees — the first class to complete the new, innovative program — weren’t just improving their own career options, although they certainly did that.

On a broader level, they were responding to a call from the National Institute of Medicine for 80% of nurses to eventually achieve a baccalaureate level of education, one that encompasses the big-picture issues faced in settings ranging from hospitals to skilled-nursing facilities to public-health organizations.

“The national challenge for 80% of nurses to be BSN-prepared by 2020 indicated to us a great need for a flexible, affordable solution for registered nurses whose lives are already so full, between caring for others at work and, on top of that, having families, hobbies, and other personal responsibilities,” said Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College (TAWC).

Bay Path’s solution, she said, is an accelerated, 100% online program that lets students — many of whom are already juggling an RN position with family responsibilities — an opportunity to broaden their education on their terms, around their rigorous schedules.

The RN to BSN Completer Program, as it’s officially known, allows for licensed, registered nurses with an associate or diploma degree to return to college to complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Bay Path’s program is fully online, allowing students to enroll and participate from across the country, and the accelerated format means that, for most students, the degree can be achieved in 18 months.

Post-graduation surveys of the inaugural graduating class revealed that two quickly found promotions, one as a hospital ER manager and another as a manager of care coordination, said Maura Devlin, deputy chief learning officer at TAWC. A new survey underway is expected to reveal more such career moves, as well as a number of graduates preparing to continue on toward master’s degrees at other schools.

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says the online RN to BSN program is a tangible response to the national call for 80% of nurses to eventually have bachelor’s degrees.

Programs like this one will continue to bring the Bay State’s number of BSN-level nurses closer to 80% — the state had already set a goal of 65%, with the number currently around 50% — but it will also open doors that may be starting to close for RNs. Although there are no official numbers, Gould and Devlin said, RNs see hospitals and other organizations pushing for higher levels of education, and favoring BSN-level nurses in hiring and promotions.

Bay Path’s new nursing program, now educating its second class of enrollees, is doing what it can to meet that demand, and early returns have been positive.

Expanding Access

Backing up a little, the American Women’s College was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to higher education to the 76 million American women who do not have a college degree. Its 28 programs run the gamut from accounting to criminal justice; from child psychology to early childhood education; from entrepreneurship to food science and safety.

Many students enrolled in various RN-to-BSN programs in this region haven’t necessarily had to leave a job to do so, but they have been challenged to fit classes in between work and family life. The online option at TAWC allows students to engage in classroom activity — much of which takes place on forums and discussion boards — on their own schedule.

The RN-to-BSN track technically requires 120 credits, but 30 are awarded up front for the students’ RN training and experience, and other credits (up to 84, in fact) can be transferred in as well, depending on the student’s prior education, training, and experience.

Devlin said the courses are patient-focused and reflect the ‘nine essentials’ of baccalaureate nursing education established by the American Assoc. of Colleges of Nursing. These include a liberal education base; evidence-based practice; quality care and patient safety; information management; policy, finance, and the regulatory environment; communication and collaboration; population health management; professionalism and values; and general nursing practice.

“These are our program outcomes,” Gould said, adding that administrators have explicitly defined some fields students may see as options for professional growth upon attaining their degree, such as case manager, infection control, home care, hospice care, occupational nurse, managerial positions, public health, risk management, and specialty care.

There’s a self-reflective element to the program as well, Devlin said, and students are encouraged to consider their unique attributes and leadership skills. “The program has the BSN candidates thinking about themselves as leaders in the field of nursing, and positions them to go on to those types of roles.”

Classes are run in a cohort model, meaning the students navigate through the courses together, although they don’t have to be online at the same time. The classes are conducted in six-week sessions — six of them per year — and taught by master’s level nursing educators.

“When we surveyed the first cohort of 22 students in May, every one of them said they would recommend the program,” Gould said. “That was really validating.”

The American Women’s College was developed to improve performance, retention, and graduation rates for nontraditional learners, and does so partly through the development of Social Online Universal Learning (SOUL), a data-driven approach to online education at TAWC, Gould said. Among its features, SOUL features customized instruction, dedicated educator coaches to help students who start to struggle, and virtual learning communities to engage other students who share their goals and professional interests.

And there are definitely some common challenges. Seventy percent of TAWC students are first-generation college attendees, one-third are single mothers, and more than half are Pell-eligible, which speaks to economic need. “We really do feel it’s kind of mission-driven, in that we’re creating a new entry point to college for this population,” she said.

She cited one student, a 38-year-old who had dropped out of high school when she became pregnant, who now works as an administrative assistant. “Her daughter is now college age, and she wanted to be a role model for her daughter,” Gould explained, so she enrolled in the American Women’s College and is now one of its top students.

Maura Devlin

Maura Devlin says the first cohort of graduates is already seeing broadened career opportunities and even promotions.

“She’s kind of representative of a lot of students we serve who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their families,” she told BusinessWest. “Their motto has become ‘it’s my time.’ For a long time, they’ve put their families first, and they’ve finally come to a place where they give themselves permission to get their education.”

First Steps

The American Women’s College received some good news in October when the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) voted to grant full accreditation through 2022 to the RN to BSN Completer Program.

“The collective commitment to quality education demonstrated each day by our faculty, staff, and community partners to provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to be outstanding nurses is at the heart of our work, and our program status reflects that,” said Marjorie Bessette, director of the Nursing program.

Meanwhile, TAWC maintains partnerships with Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center to work together to increase the number of nurse practitioners with BSN degrees.

“As a nurse, I want to give the best possible care that I can to patients. It’s my job to save lives. Completing my BSN has ensured that I can do just that,” said Laura Mazur, a nurse at Baystate Medical Center who graduated from Bay Path’s program in May. “I used to think of myself as an in-class learner, but as a floor nurse working the midnight shift, I simply didn’t have the time to spend in a classroom. The online program through the American Women’s College fit well into my life.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

The Plot Thickens

An architect’s rendering of the new branch library to be built in East Forest Park.

An architect’s rendering of the new branch library to be built in East Forest Park.

As she talked about libraries, and borrowed (that’s an industry term) from Mark Twain when she said their death was greatly exaggerated, Molly Fogarty used some words and phrases that definitely brought her argument home.

That’s because these are not the kinds of things that would have been said about these institutions a century ago, or perhaps even a decade ago.

“Libraries help level the playing field,” said Fogarty, director of the Springfield City Library. “They help people cross the digital divide; they’re technology hubs.”

Elaborating, he said that, in this computer age, access to the Internet isn’t anything approaching a luxury. It’s a necessity, for those who want to learn, apply for a job, or fact-check a work project.

And providing that access is just one of the ways libraries have changed over the years, from when they were mostly, but not entirely, book repositories.

“Books are still a big part of what we do, but there’s so much more,” she said. “Libraries are the one place where you can get help, get questions answered, use a computer, borrow materials, attend a program … and it’s all free. We have 700,000 visitors a year, and if we weren’t here, where else would they go?”

Molly Fogarty

Molly Fogarty stands in Wellman Hall at the main branch of the Springfield City Library. It’s empty at this moment (the library was closed at the time), but within five minutes of opening each day, she said, each computer is occupied.

Which brings us to the planned new East Forest Park branch of the Springfield Library. This is a facility that has been talked about for decades, and it’s been on the proverbial drawing board for a few years now. Funding has been secured from the city and state that will cover a good deal of the $9.5 million price tag, and a capital campaign, titled Promise Realized, has been launched to raise the remaining $2 million.

Matt Blumenfeld, a principal with Amherst-based Financial Development Agency (FDA), which has coordinated fund-raising campaigns for new libraries and additions across the state and beyond, said the Springfield project provides an intriguing tutorial, if you will, on the changing and expanding role of libraries and their continued importance to individual communities.

Library-building projects contribute jobs and additional vitality to downtowns and specific neighborhoods, he told BusinessWest, but the libraries themselves act as community resources vital to residents.

“It’s much more than the children’s room and a lending library,” he said, adding quickly that these components are obviously still part of the equation. “It’s a community information hub, and that’s so important in communities where there is a lot of need.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest looks at the East Forest Park branch project and the many ways in which it captures the changing landscape for libraries and shines a bright spotlight on their growing, not waning, importance to those who walk through their doors.

A New Chapter

Blumenfeld calls it his cubicle.

This is the small office cleared for FDA on the fourth floor of Springfield’s Main Library on State Street, one of the city’s enduring landmarks.

Two desks have been shoehorned into the space, which is a command post of sorts for the Promise Kept campaign, which was launched in September and will continue for the next 15 months or so.

Blumenfeld, who has operated out of such spaces at more libraries than he can count, will be in his cubicle at least two days a week by his estimates as he coordinates the campaign and makes the case for individuals, families, and businesses to donate.

It’s a strong case, and, as noted earlier, one he’s made often in this region over the past several years. Indeed, FDA coordinated the campaigns for new libraries or expansions in West Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke, among many others.

He said Springfield’s campaign, already off to a solid start, is similar to many others in that many of those being asked to contribute have questions about the future of both books and libraries.

“The challenge we always have in a campaign is to get donors to understand that the library of the future serves many of the same functions as the library they think about,” he explained. “The Holyoke Public Library was founded with the motto ‘the People’s College,’ and that’s really the sense of what a library is. It’s a learning commons for everyone, and all you have to do is walk through the door.”

The case for libraries is best summed up in those phrases used by Fogarty earlier. Indeed, while libraries will always be a place to borrow a book, video, or piece of music, and also a place where people can find quiet and a place to read, study, and conduct research (often with others), these facilities now level that playing field Fogarty mentioned.

And this role takes on new meaning in communities like Springfield, where many families live at or below the poverty level and Internet access is often beyond their budget and, therefore, their reach.

To get her points across, Fogarty talked about what would be a typical day at the main branch, and specifically the computer room.

Matt Blumenfeld

Matt Blumenfeld says that today, libraries are community information hubs, and, therefore, vital resources for cities and towns.

“When we open the central library, within five minutes, all of the computers are being used,” she said, adding that there are 45 of them currently, and they will be used by roughly 100,000 visitors over the course of a year.

“People are waiting to get in,” she went on. “And we have a reservation system; if a computer isn’t available when they arrive, they can make a reservation for later in the day — and they do.”

There’s a reason for this — actually, several of them, she said.

“There is a digital divide in this country; if you have a computer at home and you have sufficient Internet access, your children are able to do their homework at home, you’re able to do research at home, you can apply for a job at home. If you don’t…”

Her voice tailed off as if to say, before she actually said it, that those on the wrong side of this divide are at what would have to be considered a societal disadvantage.

“You can’t apply for a job right now unless you do it online,” she went on. “That’s the way you can do it. So we’re bridging that digital divide for a large number of people.”

And this bridge involves more than a computer and a mouse, she went on, adding that library staffers will assist patrons with setting up an e-mail account, with writing a résumé, and in countless other ways.

They’ve been doing all that in what has passed as the East Forest Park branch for the past 15 years or so. This would be the small storefront, a former video store, actually, on Island Pond Road. There are six computers at that facility, said Fogarty, adding that there will be 56 at the new, 17,000-square-foot, single-story branch to be built on the grounds of the Mary Dryden School on Surrey Road.

The new facility will feature a so-called ‘teen zone,’ a children’s area, and “quiet study rooms,” said Blumenfeld, adding that now, perhaps more than ever, libraries have become gathering spots and resources for all members of a family.

Fogarty agreed, adding that the Springfield City Library has literally thousands of programs for young people and adults alike, and they are focused on everything from workforce training to adult literacy; from poetry to creative writing. And many of them have waiting lists.

The Last Word

The tagline for the Springfield City Library reads “All Yours, Just Ask.”

Those four words speak volumes — in every way, shape, and form — about this institution and all those like it. There is so much there for the visitor, and all he or she has to do is ask.

It’s always been that way, but today, when there is a digital divide that represents an extremely deep crevasse, the importance of libraries, contrary to what may be becoming popular opinion, has never been greater.

And in that respect, ‘Promise Kept’ is more than a slogan attached to a fund-raising campaign — it’s an operating mindset.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Degrees of Growth

The AIC campus

The AIC campus has seen considerable change over the past decade, and the picture continues to evolve, with a planned addition and renovations for an existing building to house exercise science classes.

American International College has again earned placement on the list of the fastest-growing colleges in the country. Overall, the institution has nearly doubled its enrollment over the past decade or so, largely out of necessity. But the methods for achieving such growth — specifically in response to trends within the marketplace and a high-touch approach to student needs — offers lessons to schools of all sizes.

Jonathan Scully was searching for a word or phrase to describe the situation when it comes to enrollment on college campuses today.

He eventually settled on “it’s scary out there,” which certainly works, given the current trends. Indeed, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there were 18,071,000 students taking classes on American campuses in the spring of this year. That number was 19,619,000 million three years earlier, a nearly 8% decline. According to most reports, the numbers have been falling rather steadily, about a percentage point or two the past several years, with no real change on the horizon.

There are a number of reasons for this drop, noted Scully, dean of Undergraduate Admissions at American International College (AIC), who listed everything from smaller high-school graduating classes to a relatively strong economy — when times are worse, people often stay in school after graduating or return to school because they are unemployed; from outmigration to steep competition for a smaller pool of students.

Whatever the reasons, most schools — from community colleges to some prestigious four-year institutions — are struggling to maintain their numbers and, at the same time, their standards for admission.

AIC has managed to not only buck these trends but achieve status as one of the fastest-growing schools in the country, said Scully and Kerry Barnes, dean of Graduate Admissions.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully says AIC takes a high-touch approach with students, both before and after they arrive on campus.

Indeed, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently named AIC one of its “fastest growing colleges in the United States,” the sixth time the school has made that list in recent years. Among private, nonprofit doctoral institutions, AIC placed fourth among the top 20 colleges and universities in the country, with a 95% growth rate. Overall, AIC nearly doubled its enrollment between 2005 and 2015. (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, ranked ninth, is the only other school in the Commonwealth that placed in the same category.)

Most of this growth has come at the graduate level, where overall enrollment has risen from 415 to more than 2,000 over the past decade, but there has been improvement on the undergraduate side as well, with the overall numbers up 5% over that same period, much better than the national averages.

AIC has achieved such growth in large part out of necessity. A decade ago, the school was struggling mightily and needed to make a number of adjustments, in everything from its physical plant to its enrollment strategies, to attract students to its campus. But the climb up the charts has also resulted from ongoing and heightened attention to the needs of both the business community and students.

Regarding the former, said Barnes, the college has surveyed the marketplace and worked with businesses across a number of sectors to identify in-demand skill sets and areas of need when it comes to trained professionals. This has led to creation of new degree programs in areas ranging from occupational therapy to casino management.

“We’ve been able to identify key trends within the marketplace,” said Barnes, “but also work with local businesses to say, ‘what do you really need?’ and ‘what do you want students to have in order to be successful in their positions?’ or ‘what are your current employees looking for, and what do you need them to know?’”

Such questions, and the answers to them, have led to the creation of new degree programs, specific areas of study, and even new facilities, such as the expansion of a building on State Street, across from the main campus for exercise science programs.

As for the latter, said Scully, AIC is working hard — much harder than it once did — to assist students (many of them first-generation college students) both before and after they actually start attending classes in an effort to make them more comfortable and better able to meet the many challenges confronting them.

“We focus on a high-touch approach, and we take it all the way through — from recruitment to the time students are on campus,” he explained. “We realize that students aren’t always going to be ready for the rigors of college, not ready for application process, not ready to take that step on their own. And rather than say ‘figure it out — or don’t,’ we hold their hand the whole way and give them whatever they need.”

Add it all up, and it becomes easy to see why AIC has now become a regular on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s fastest-growing colleges chart.

For the this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Barnes and Scully about how the school intends to continue earning placement on that list, even as the enrollment picture becomes ever more scary.

Class Action

They call it ‘summer melt.’ And they’re not talking about ice cream.

Indeed, college administrators use that term to refer to those students they lose between the time they sign on the proverbial dotted line and when classes begin in the fall. There are many reasons for this meltage, said Scully, including financial matters and other personal issues.

“It’s a big problem for a lot of institutions, especially those like AIC,” he explained, referring to the large percentage of low-income and first-generation students at the school. “A student pays their deposit, they intend to enroll, but they fall off for any number of reasons.”

AIC has devoted a considerable number of resources — all of them in that category of hand-holding — to the matter, and as a result, it has seen its melt rate drop from 18% a few years ago to 11%, just below what would be average for schools with AIC’s size and demographics.

This dramatic improvement in a critical area is just one example of how AIC is bucking national trends with regard to attracting and retaining students — and the manner in which it is achieving such results.

Kerry Barnes

Kerry Barnes says graduate programs at AIC have enjoyed explosive growth as the school responds to changing needs in the business community.

But before getting more in-depth about the present and future, it would be prudent to first take a look back — to where AIC was about a decade or so ago.

Talk about scary … that would be an apt description of the picture on campus. Neither Scully nor Barnes was around back then, but they’re both from this area, and they both know what the conditions were like.

“It was a very different place back then,” said Scully. “The physical plant was in decline, the enrollment numbers were falling, technology was lacking. But sweeping reforms were instituted, and they continue today.”

Indeed, both Barnes and Scully give considerable credit to AIC President Vince Maniaci, who arrived on campus in 2005 and made increasing enrollment his first priority — again, out of necessity and real threats to survival.

“There’s a lot to be said for a leader who’s willing to take educated risks,” Barnes told BusinessWest. “We’ve been very thoughtful in our growth, and Vince has supported that, and so has the board of directors. And that’s very important for a school our size to rebound from where we were 10 years ago.”

AIC’s successful efforts to roughly double its enrollment are attributable to a number of factors, said Scully and Barnes, but mostly, it all comes back to working harder, listening better, being innovative, and being nimble. And they have examples for each category.

With regard to working harder, Scully noted everything from those hand-holding efforts he described to more aggressive recruiting across the school’s main catchment area — Massachusetts and Connecticut.

He said there are eight admissions staffers, a big number for a relatively small undergraduate population (roughly 1,500 students), but it’s indicative of that high-touch approach and a reason why the melt numbers are comparatively low.

And this approach continues after the student arrives on campus.

“We hand things off to the academic side, to the student-life side,” said Scully. “They pick up the baton and run with it, and make sure students are treated the same way we treat them during the recruitment process; they get what they need, they get the attention, and they never become a number.”

As for the listening part, Barnes noted, again, that it involves a number of constituencies, including one she called simply the “marketplace.”

By that, she meant careful watching of trends and developments with regard to jobs — where they are now and where they’ll in be the years and decades to come — but also concerning the skills and requirements needed to take those jobs.


As one example, she cited education and, specifically, a requirement in Massachusetts for teachers to become licensed. “We’ve been able to identify programs with growth potential, specifically to meet the needs of the local K-12 districts,” she explained. “We’ve been able to work with those districts to make sure we’re bringing the right licensure programs to their areas; that’s been hugely successful for us.

“We’ve been able to create very structured growth within our own programs to help meet what the market in Springfield needs,” Barnes went on. “In healthcare, we’ve had considerable growth in occupational therapy, physical therapy, and family nurse practitioners, but we’ve also been able to branch off and start key programs like the resort and casino management program, an arm of the MBA program.”

Scully agreed, noting that, with undergraduate programs — and all programs, for that matter — there is an emphasis on creating return on investment for those enrolled in them, something that’s being demanded by both students and the parents often footing the bill.

“We’re focused on programs that the market demands, that are interesting, and that are ROI-driven,” he explained, referencing, as examples, offerings in visual/digital arts, public health, theater, exercise science, and other fields.

“There’s going to be a high demand for exercise science graduates, athletic trainers,” he explained. “So we’re giving the market what it needs.”

As for innovation and nimbleness, they go hand in hand — with each other and also the ‘working hard’ and ‘listening’ parts of the equation. It’s one thing to listen, said Barnes, and it’s another to be able to respond quickly and effectively to what one hears and sees.

AIC has been able to do that, not only with new programs, but also in how programs are delivered, such as online, on weekends in some cases, and in accelerated fashion in other instances.

“We’re being very smart about the programs that we’re offering, and we’re working closely to update everything on the academic side to make sure it’s relevant,” she went on, adding that, in addition to relevancy, the school is also focused on flexibility and enabling students to take classes how and when they want.

“I think it’s cliché to say we’re nimble, but we are,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re able to a do a lot of things that larger institutions can’t, and we’re really in tune with our students and what they need.”

Determined Course

All this explains why AIC is making the best of a scary situation, especially on the undergraduate level.

The school’s presence on — and rise up — the fast-growing colleges list is significant and makes for good press for the institution. More important, though, is how such growth was accomplished.

Words such as ‘relevancy,’ accronyms like ROI, and phrases such as ‘high-touch’ do a good hob of telling this story.

It’s a story of a remarkable rebound in a relatively short time — with more intriguing chapters to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

A New Chapter

Laurie Flynn says her new role with Link to Libraries enables her to make her passions — reading and children’s literature — her profession.

Laurie Flynn says her new role with Link to Libraries enables her to make her passions — reading and children’s literature — her profession.

Laurie Flynn says it’s not often that one gets to make their passion their profession.

And it was the opportunity to do just that which prompted her to put aside a budding marketing business she co-founded a few years ago and become president and CEO of Link to Libraries (LTL), the decade-old nonprofit that, as the name suggests, puts books on the shelves of school libraries and other agencies and promotes childhood literacy on many levels.

“It just seemed like this serendipitous, perfect opportunity to bring together what I’ve learned professionally and my personal passion for children’s literature, and also for reading and writing,” said Flynn, who has made LTL only the latest example of making her passion her work.

Indeed, Flynn, who returned to college (Simmons College in Boston, to be more specific) in 2011 to earn a master’s degree in writing for children, has long been a children’s book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, handling middle-grade and young-adult books across all genres. And for nearly two years, she was the Western Mass. regional coordinator for Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit that works to incorporate books into pediatric care and encourage families to read aloud together.

Desiring to take her work with literacy and children’s literature to a still-higher level, Flynn assumes many of the responsibilities carried out by Susan Jaye-Kaplan, co-founder of LTL, as it’s called, along with Janet Crimmons, in 2007. Jaye-Kaplan told BusinessWest she will remain quite active with the organization, as a board member, fund-raiser, and volunteer, among other roles, but acknowledged that, as LTL continues to grow, geographically and otherwise, it was time for the nonprofit to hire a paid, full-time president.

LTL’s warehouse at Rediker Software is crammed with books bound for area schools and nonprofits.

LTL’s warehouse at Rediker Software is crammed with books bound for area schools and nonprofits.

“This was a very necessary step to continue growing Link to Libraries and broadening its impact,” she said of the decision to hire a director. “We were at a crossroads, growth-wise, and this was the direction we needed to take.”

Flynn, who moved into LTL’s donated office space at Rediker Software in Hampden in late September, told BusinessWest that her first few months will be spent “learning the territory,” a phrase with multiple meanings.

First, there is the actual physical territory, meaning the dozens of schools and nonprofits across Western Mass. and Northern Conn. that LTL serves; she’s already visited several, and more trips are scheduled. There is also LTL’s operating structure, complete with a network of hundreds of volunteers handing assignments ranging from reading in the classroom to packing books bound for area schools.

And there’s still more to that word ‘territory,’ including everything from the art and science of selecting the books that will be distributed to soliciting new sponsors for LTL’s hugely successful Business Book Link program, which recruits businesses large and small to sponsor individual schools.

Actually, Flynn was already familiar with much of this territory through her work reviewing books, with Reach Out Read, and also work as an LTL volunteer. Indeed, she was, and would like to go on being, a volunteer reader at Homer Street School in Springfield.

But she acknowledges that she has much to learn, and is eager to get on with doing so.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Flynn about her new role and her decision to turn her passion for books and childhood literacy into her new business card.

Turning the Page

Flynn brings an intriguing résumé to her role with LTL, one that includes time working in both Parliament and the U.S. Capitol.

The former was a relatively short stint — an internship undertaken while she was enrolled at the London School of Economics in 1993. The latter was much more involved, covering the first half-dozen years of her professional career.

A Washington, D.C. native, Flynn started working as deputy press secretary for U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) in January 1995, and a year later became his press secretary, serving in that role until 1998, when she became communications manager in the office of the Secretary of the Senate.

In that role, and also as a staff assistant handling special projects and communications in the office of the Clerk of the House, she was heavily involved with press inquiries and other aspects of construction of the $621 million U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), a large underground addition to the Capitol complex that opened in 2008.

After relocating to Western Mass., she became an independent communications consultant, specializing in event planning and execution, product launches, and writing of documents related to corporate marketing and mission.

And after spending two years with Reach Out and Read, she co-founded Red Mantel Communications (her partner had a red mantel in her home, where the two would often brainstorm), which specialized in media and public relations, event planning, and other communications-related work.

“I was fortunate enough, since it was our own company, to focus on communications work I really wanted to do,” she explained. “Much of it had to do with nonprofits and with helping corporations focus their philanthropic giving as a way to generate good press for not only the business, but also the organization; we really tried to focus on local agencies when we could to help raise their visibility.”

Among her clients was Balise Motor Sales, which had already forged a unique relationship with Homer Street School — the late Mike Balise, a principal with the company, purchased winter coats for students there — and took it to a higher level by adopting the school through LTL’s Business Book Link program.

Flynn, who read to fourth-graders at Homer Street, said she was content in her work with Red Mantel, but when she heard that LTL was going to commence a search for its first full-time paid director, she became intrigued.

But first, she needed convincing that Jaye-Kaplan, the energetic face of the nonprofit, was really going to take at least a small step back in her role as leader of the agency.


“I couldn’t imagine her actually stepping away — I thought she would change her mind, which would have been fine,” Flynn said. “But she was firm — she was going to step back.”

The position attracted a number of applicants, most of them with backgrounds in education, nonprofit management, or both, and Flynn eventually prevailed in a search process that ended in early September.

Looking ahead, Flynn said her informal job description is to build on LTL’s solid foundation and advance its work to not only put books on library shelves and in students’ hands, but to encourage young people to read and impress upon them the importance of doing so to attain jobs and careers.

“I just have a deep love and appreciation for the importance of reading in kids’ lives,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the Business Book Link program is an important part of this mission.

And not simply because the businesses donate money to purchase books for the schools they’re sponsoring. A perhaps even bigger component is how those businesses become involved with the schools — by reading to students, but also funding field trips and other initiatives — and having their employees visit the classrooms and become role models of sorts.

“That community involvement, and getting representatives of the business world to come into the classroom and take the time to sit down with those kids … that’s just so important and so unique,” Flynn explained.

Overall, she said would like to see the organization broaden its work and its mission in some important ways, but without ever straying from its reason for being.

“I’d like to see Link to Libraries grow as a resource — a source of literacy information and a way to connect teachers with books,” she explained. “I’d love to see us expand that way and create a new niche, as a children’s literacy resource.”

Meanwhile, she would like to use books and reading as a way to help young people “find their own voice.”

“By sharing a love of reading and stories,” she told BusinessWest, maybe we can inspire kids to write their own.”

As she contemplates how to do that, Flynn said the region’s many noted children’s authors, including Jane Yolin, Holly Black, Richard Michelson, and others, could play a role in such work.

“These authors could become a resource for teachers and educators in our community, offering them new and interesting ways to approach reading to kids to make it interesting and relevant.”

Book Smart

As LTL celebrates 10 years of carrying out its unique mission, this is an appropriate time to pause and reflect, said Flynn, adding that the milestone, and her arrival as the first paid director, are turning points for the organization.

Together, they symbolize the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the agency. And while the specific plotline of this chapter isn’t known yet, the story is likely to be one of continued growth and deeper impact within the community.

As for Flynn, she is excited to be helping to script this chapter. That’s to be expected when your passion becomes your life’s work.

—George O’Brien