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Degrees of Progress


John Wells, left, and Joe Bartolomeo

John Wells, left, and Joe Bartolomeo say UWW continues to expand and evolve while remaining true to a mission forged more than a half-century ago.

The University Without Walls program at UMass Amherst, or simply UWW, as it’s known to so many, last year marked its 50th anniversary of changing lives at a ceremony at the Old Chapel on the UMass campus.

And there was certainly much to celebrate.

Indeed, while the world of higher education, the world of work, and UWW, for that matter, have changed in profound ways since the early ’70s, the program’s basic mission, and reason for being, have not. It exists to help non-traditional students (and they come in many categories and with diverse needs) earn degrees, certificates, or even a few credits that can help them advance professionally and perhaps take their careers in a different direction.

As it has carried out that broad mission, UWW has been defined by two words that speak volumes about what it’s all about: accessibility and flexibility. And both are keys to those non-traditional students getting to where they want to go, said John Wells, senior vice provost for Lifeline Learning at UMass Amherst.

The accessibility comes in many forms, from the ease of entry into programs to the availability of courses online — in this case, decades before COVID made it standard operating procedure. The flexibility, meanwhile, also comes in different forms, but especially the ability to shape degrees to fit specific needs.

While the mission and some of the basic programs haven’t changed much since Richard Nixon was patrolling the White House, UWW has certainly evolved and expanded to meet the needs of non-traditional students, fill gaps, and go well beyond the degree-completion programs for which it is most known.

“Not only is it a non-traditional home, it’s also an innovative home for looking for new ways to educate. And that’s one thing that UWW is — it’s an incubator for change and innovation.”

“Instead of just adult degree-completion programs, UWW offers pre-college and professional programs,” said Wells. “We felt like we could provide a legitimate academic home for students who weren’t coming down that traditional pathway.

“And not only is it a non-traditional home, it’s also an innovative home for looking for new ways to educate,” he went on. “And that’s one thing that UWW is — it’s an incubator for change and innovation.”

Joe Bartolomeo, associate provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at UMass Amherst and also a professor of English, agreed.

He said UWW’s degree-completion offering, the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, remains its flagship program. But it now also offers what’s known as a BDIC, or bachelor’s degree with individual concentration, which is for residential undergrads, he noted, “but residential undergrads who don’t want to follow a traditional major path — they want to create their own degree to best reflect their own interests and goals.”

There is also an IT program, a minor program that now boasts more than 500 students, as well as other IT-related initiatives, such as a computer-competency course and a public-interest technology certificate; an ‘interdisciplinary exploratory track’ for incoming UMass students who haven’t decided on a major or think they might want to pursue an interdisciplinary track; pre-college; professional development; summer programs; and more.

For this entry in BusinessWest’s ongoing series exploring professional-development programs at area colleges and universities, we take an in-depth look at UWW, its long history of excellence, and its ongoing tradition of expansion and evolution to meet the changing needs of students — and the region.


Grade Expectations

A snapshot of those in attendance at the 50th-anniversary celebration, delayed a year because of the pandemic, helps convey how this aptly named program has provided students at all stages of life with flexible learning opportunities and a chance to turn their work experience into credits toward a degree. Current and former mayors of area communities who attended UWW were on hand, as was Kate Hogan, speaker pro tempore of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, another alum, and business owners and managers from across the broad spectrum of the regional economy.

Tracing the history of UWW, Bartolomeo said it was created to help adults who had started college but not finished their degrees. At the heart of the program is the ability of students to take their work experience and convert it into college credits to be put toward a degree — in some cases, dozens of credits, thus expediting their degree-completion work.

At present, there are roughly 200 students in the BDIC program and another 500 in Interdisciplinary Studies, said Bartolomeo, adding that they are pursuing degrees, and minors, in many different areas.

“A lot of them work in education, many of them work in social work, a lot are in business and economics,” he noted. “But they can also create their own, and many of them come to us with considerable experience — they just didn’t finish their degrees.”

Wells agreed, noting that, while some have a specific major, or set of skills, in mind, others don’t, which is fine, because work is changing rapidly, and so are the job market and the skill sets needed to succeed in specific jobs and fields.

In UWW, he said, students are more free from the pressures of declaring a major and, in most respects, have more ability to fine-tune a degree to match their needs.

“In traditional education, there’s always that pressure, or emphasis, on declaring a major and figuring out what you’re studying,” he told BusinessWest. “We like to think of UWW as being a place where it’s OK to say, ‘I’m exploring a little bit more,’ or ‘I have a variety of interests.’

“Today, the world is moving fast enough where it’s hard to define education down to the letter,” he went on. “A lot of times, people are getting a degree, and by the time they’re done, the skills they’re acquired are out of date. We like to think of UWW as an incubator because we need to change our thinking about education, and this has always been a safe space to try things.”

While degree-completion offerings remain the heart of UWW, there are many different programs being offered, everything from summer offerings to graduate-degree programs to professional development.

In that last category, there are a number of non-credit and for-credit professional and continuing-education programs for those looking to gain new skills and knowledge in areas ranging from leadership to music; from writing to turf management.

“A lot of times, people are getting a degree, and by the time they’re done, the skills they’re acquired are out of date. We like to think of UWW as an incubator because we need to change our thinking about education, and this has always been a safe space to try things.”

Indeed, the UMass Winter School for Turf Managers, which was established in 1927 and was the first program of its kind, continues today, and is a top source for turf-industry professionals.

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, UWW has expanded into other realms beyond degree completion, including pre-college and summer programs, said Bartolomeo, adding that these are designed to help improve students’ chances of succeeding when they get to college.

There are several pre-college initiatives, including summer programs; ‘research intensives’ — six-week, immersive lab experiences alongside UMass Amherst research faculty; college-prep workshops, and even a week-long College Application Bootcamp.

Another related initiative is called Jump In, a summer program for newly admitted UMass students who want to get a jump on their college education, Wells noted, adding that they take a course online — a general-education course, an introductory major course, and/or a ‘student success’ course.

“It’s an opportunity for them to get a head start and see what a college course is like,” he explained, adding that more than 100 signed up for classes this past summer.

At the same time, and in keeping with that notion of UWW being an incubator, the university is using it to test-drive concepts and even proposed degree programs.

As an example, he cited a certificate program called Innovate, which, as that name suggests, is focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Most of the professional schools are contributing courses to that, and it was originated by faculty in Engineering,” he explained. “But they didn’t want it to reside in one of the traditional STEM colleges because they wanted it to be open to students around campus. The provost’s office referred them our way, and we’re going to provide it with an academic home.”

Another example is called Commonwealth Collegiate Academy, a systemwide initiative for dual enrollment for high-school students, he said, explaining that this is different from pre-college and focuses specifically on public high schools that tend to be underresourced and have larger underrepresented, minority populations.

“It’s an opportunity for them to take courses live, online, during their school day,” Wells explained. “And we’re working now with various high schools on plans to start it next year; this is a priority of the president’s office, and even the governor’s office.”


Bottom Line

And it’s yet another example of how UWW continues to evolve and broaden the mission that it took on more than 50 years ago.

Those letters have become part of the academic landscape in Western Mass. — and well beyond. And, more importantly, they connote pathways (in the plural, because one size definitely does not fit all) to success in the workplace and in life.


It’s Not Simply Academic

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez says AIC strives to create a sense of belonging for students.

With high-school graduation numbers down in the U.S. and college enrollments following suit, Hubert Benitez says higher-education institutions must take a multi-pronged approach to enrollment management and their “overarching value proposition.”

“The academic portfolio of all our institutions across the region are very strong. So the students have options: wherever they will go, they will receive a sound education,” said Benitez, who began his tenure as president of American International College (AIC) last spring. “So, having said that, what truly differentiates one college from another?”

To answer that question, he pointed to a report called “AIC Reimagined 2022-2027,” which considers how to rethink strategies in six different pillars, including academics; student life, engagement, and support; fiscal growth; internal and external community engagement and development; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and athletics.

Take the first pillar, academics. “We realized, post-pandemic, that we have to reimagine our academic enterprise and what the collegiate experience is all about,” Benitez told BusinessWest. “We have to rethink how we offer education. Students learn differently, and they want to attend college in a different way. We have a lot of non-traditional students coming back to education, people who, post-pandemic, want to retool themselves for a career change — adult learners, students who have family commitments. If we are to address their needs, we really have to rethink how we offer our academic portfolio.”

Colleges and universities everywhere are having similar conversations about how to attract, and then shepherd to graduation, a smaller pool of potential college students than in past decades, due largely to changing demographics.

“The return-on-investment case has been made over and over again. The economics have been quite clear for a long time: people with a college degree earn over a million dollars more over their lifetime than those who don’t have one.”

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges fell by 1.1% in fall 2022 compared to 2021, a pace of decline that’s nearly returned to pre-pandemic rates. In between was a year, 2020, when enrollment dropped 3.4%, followed by 2.1% in 2021. The net effect of those years is an enrollment total that’s down close to 7% from 2019.

“The trend for higher-education enrollment had been on the decline, but this was certainly exacerbated by the pandemic years,” Elms College President Harry Dumay said. “But things are coming somewhat back to normal these days for us.”

That’s reflected in some healthy numbers for Elms’ various segments, including first-time freshmen, traditional transfer students, and especially graduate students; the only segment that has seen some erosion is transfers from community colleges, which were hit hard by the pandemic.

A stabilization of enrollment makes sense, despite the high cost of college, Dumay said. “The return-on-investment case has been made over and over again. The economics have been quite clear for a long time: people with a college degree earn over a million dollars more over their lifetime than those who don’t have one.”

What Elms and many other schools are now doing is providing more flexibility for adult and non-traditional students, such as stackable, short-term certificates that ease the way to gainful employment and accumulate toward a degree down the line.

However, he noted, beyond the economics, what shouldn’t be undervalued is the formative aspect of college, especially for the shrinking 18-22 age demographic. “Whether you go full-time or part-time, whether residential or commuter, there is something that happens in those years — forming character, learning to think critically — which affects the value.”

Benitez said culture is a key element of AIC’s message to prospective students and their parents.

“One differentiator is how we create a sense of belonging for the students. It’s very important to today’s students,” he explained. “When they arrive on campus, they need to feel like they belong. I truly believe AIC provides that value to any student from any background because we have intentionally created an environment where every single student feels like they belong.”

Once enrolled, he added, “we follow the student along their educational journey, providing support services at every single stage of their academic journey.”

“If any students are struggling for any reason that would keep them from persisting and staying enrolled at college, we have a whole team dedicated to helping them work through that.”

Darcey Kemp

Darcey Kemp

In fact, that’s a key element of one of the six pillars, and it’s important, especially for first-generation college students, to have the peace of mind offered by such supports.

“For a parent who did not have the opportunity to attend college, leaving his or her child in an environment where they don’t know if they’re going to feel right has to be daunting,” Benitez said. “We try to approach parents and students alike, making them understand that’s important to us. I hope they are relieved when they come here and feel the caring environment.”


Support System

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), whose enrollment figures are up slightly from last spring, is also heavily focused on culture and student support, said Darcey Kemp, vice president of Student Affairs.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” she added. “Our students are individuals, with individual experiences.”

The support starts early, with outreach to high-school students to help them with applications, placement testing, financial aid, choosing class schedules, and more. “We come to you,” Kemp said, noting that STCC also invites guidance counselors to campus so they can gather information to bring back to their schools.

Aware of the impact the pandemic had on men of color, who dropped out disproportionately during that period, STCC also created the Male Initiative for Leadership and Education (MILE), a program that provides inclusive academic support, mentoring, and community-engagement opportunities to male students, particularly Black and Latino students. Participants connect with professionals who serve as mentors throughout the student’s time at the college, helping them stay on track to reach their degree goals.

That can be a challenge at many institutions. The Education Data Initiative reports that first-time undergraduate freshmen have a 12-month dropout rate of 24%. Among first-time students in bachelor’s-degree programs, almost 26% do not earn their degree; among all undergraduate students, around 40% drop out.

The economic impact can be significant; the same report notes that college dropouts make an average of 33% less income than those who hold bachelor’s degrees, and college dropouts are almost 20% more likely to be unemployed than any degree holder.

That’s why student advisors at STCC work closely with students to make sure they’re taking the classes they need to achieve their degree goals, and why the college regularly looks back five semesters and reaches out to anyone who has paused their education and not returned during those two and a half years, to talk about what supports they might need to continue, and what steps to take to re-enroll.

“We need, in higher education in general, to invest time and energy into resources that help students reach their personal and academic goals,” Kemp said. “It’s an individualized conversation for each student.”

Dumay said 44% of Elms students are Pell-eligible, meaning they come from low-income families, so it’s important that they succeed. “You don’t want to come to Elms and not graduate, whether with debt or without debt, because of the investment of time. It’s really important we help our students graduate.”

With a student graduation rate and a first-year retention rate higher than the national average, that effort has paid off, he added. “There are a variety of things we put in place to ensure we help students be successful, including a physical Center for Student Access, but also supports like coaching.”

Benitez said 50% of AIC’s student body is Pell-eligible, and many are the first in their family to attend college. “We have a number of programs for first-generation college students that include very basic things like time management, how do you learn, how do you study, how to you financially plan? This is often new to them, so helping them navigate their college experience is very important to us.”

STCC’s Center for Access Services helps students tackle issues such as homelessness and food insecurity that could hinder their ability to get an education and climb the economic ladder.

“If any students are struggling for any reason that would keep them from persisting and staying enrolled at college, we have a whole team dedicated to helping them work through that,” said Kemp, adding that the STCC website also has a ‘chat now’ feature for student questions on anything from admissions to financial aid to understanding the Blackboard learning-management system. “It’s another way to demonstrate to students that we will engage with them in any way they want to engage with us.”


Rolling with the Changes

In short, Kemp said, “it’s important that we continue to share with students that there are opportunities to manage all the things they have going on. If a working parent wants to go to college, they can; they don’t have to choose between taking care of the family and obtaining a degree.”

That proposition is easier now, she added, with the program flexibility — in person, hybrid, or fully online — that emerged during the pandemic.

Benitez believes academic institutions today need to serve as engines for workforce development, and in AIC’s case, the impact is local, as most of its students hail from the region, and many stay and work here after graduation.

“We ask our business partners, what do you need in a graduate? What is the skillset, the competency set? And how are we going to revise and reimagine our academic offerings so it’s responsive to the workforce needs of this region?”

Because young people today plan to change jobs many times, one role of colleges is to teach them to be lifetime learners, he added, so they can easily adapt to their changing environment; in some cases, they’re training for jobs that don’t even exist yet. “We should prepare the groundwork for them to learn as they grow,” Benitez said.

Dumay told BusinessWest that the past few years have been a difficult time for all colleges, one in which they’ve had to be prudent financially. But he believes those efforts to tighten up and adapt are worth it.

“We’re providing a tremendous service to the general public — not just Elms, but all colleges like us — by helping the citizenry, both young people and not so young, get a foot on the economic ladder. That benefits all of us,” he said.

“If higher education struggles, the entire economy struggles,” he went on. “We are certainly staying strong, and the help that has been provided by the federal and state government helped a lot of colleges remain strong. But it is still a challenging time for higher education, and we want to remain healthy and strong so we can serve our students.”

To do that, Benitez said, requires a willingness to do things differently — in other words, to reimagine a college education. He believes the alternative, stagnation, is unsustainable.

“Academic institutions must be able to adapt to the current times, to meet the student where they are,” he said. “That’s critically important in these times.”

Economic Outlook

Region’s Colleges, Universities Face More Stern Tests in 2022


Looking ahead to 2022, Sandra Doran projects that this will be what she called “the year of the woman.”

Elaborating, she said many women have put their lives, careers, and educational goals on hold the past few years. And she projects that many will be making up for lost time in the months to come as the region and its large and important higher-education sector look to return to something that has been quite elusive since March 2020: normalcy.

“COVID has had a disproportionate impact on women, both in the workforce and in higher education,” said Doran, president of Bay Path University in Longmeadow, a women’s college, at least at the undergraduate level. “Many people lost their jobs, and many students weren’t able to continue, especially our adult students, those who work and live and go to school, and our graduate students — many of them had to delay their own aspirations. And I see many people saying, ‘I’m not going to put that aside any longer.’”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Many people lost their jobs, and many students weren’t able to continue, especially our adult students, those who work and live and go to school, and our graduate students — many of them had to delay their own aspirations. And I see many people saying, ‘I’m not going to put that aside any longer.’”

The area’s colleges certainly need this to be the year of the woman — and a better year all around. Many had been struggling with enrollment before the pandemic, due to smaller high-school graduating classes, but other factors as well. And the pandemic only exacerbated the problem, with enrollment down more than 3% nationally in the fall of 2021.

The region’s community colleges have been the hardest-hit, with double-digit drops in enrollment at all of them over the past two years, but all schools have been impacted by COVID.

“Like every state university in Massachusetts, we’re having enrollment challenges,” said Linda Thompson, who took the helm at Westfield State University last summer, noting that many are still wary about attending college in the midst of a pandemic.

Those we spoke with said ‘normal’ was something they were anticipating would return last fall. Indeed, as COVID cases plummeted over the summer and the economy reopened across the board, there were high expectations for that fall semester, said Harry Dumay, president of Elms College in Chicopee. But the Delta variant showed how quickly the picture, and expectations, can change.

And as the new year dawns, COVID and its Omicron variant loom large over this sector, with some uncertainty about whether schools can open their campuses for the spring semester (several closed their doors as Omicron cases spiked in the middle of December) and under what circumstances they can reopen.

“Fall of 2021 was actually a very good enrollment period for us.”

“We’ll be watching over the break to see how things develop, and we will have contingency plans in place if we need to do anything different,” said Dumay, adding that returning students must be vaccinated and receive their boosters as soon as they are eligible. “We’ll be as cautious and prudent as we were in the fall of 2021, and even more so, given what we’ve seen from Omicron.”

There are other challenges as well, especially a workforce crisis that hasn’t spared any sector, especially higher education.

“We have jobs that are going unfilled; we have jobs where, in the past, we’d have 100 applicants — we’re just not seeing that anymore,” said Thompson, noting this trend involves positions at every level and shows few if any signs of abating any time soon.

But amid the questions, concern, and uncertainty, there is also optimism, expressed by Dumay and others, that 2022, and especially the fall semester, will bring improvement on enrollment numbers and a return to something approaching normal.

Harry Dumay says he’s confident about the way enrollment is trending at the Elms heading into 2022.

Harry Dumay says he’s confident about the way enrollment is trending at the Elms heading into 2022.

Or continued improvement, as the case may be.

“Fall of 2021 was actually a very good enrollment period for us,” said Dumay, adding that, after a slight decline in the fall of 2020, the first semester after COVID made its arrival, the school — bucking those national trends — saw record applications among traditional, first-time freshmen, close to record acceptances, and one of the highest enrollment numbers for first-time freshmen in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the numbers for transfer students and graduate students were also solid, with the latter helped by the opening of a graduate admissions office, he went on, adding that the only segment that was down was continuing education, the students who transfer from community colleges, a statistic in keeping with the struggles at those schools.

“As we look to the fall of 2022, everything is trending as it was in the fall of 2021,” he went on. “In fact, we’re ahead, year over year, in terms of applications, and all three segments that were good last year continue to look very solid for 2022.”

Doran shared that optimism. “I feel very confident about next fall,” she said. “Many students had an online experience over the past few years in high school, and now, they’re looking for a more personalized, in-person fall experience, and that’s what we’re really good at.

“I really see this as a very strong year for women in education and women in the workforce,” she went on. “And I feel that way for several reasons, starting with the fact that I hear women say, ‘we can no longer put on our lives on hold — we have to move forward aggressively, and part of our life plan is to make sure we have the right education.’

“But we also hear from employers that they’re very eager to fill their talent pipeline,” she went on. “They know our students, that they’re well-qualified and exceptional employees, and we’re working very closely with employers to make sure our curriculum provides our students with the strengths, capabilities, skillsets, and thinking ability to succeed; I see it on both sides of the equation.”

Linda Thompson

Linda Thompson

“We’re looking at more things we can do with community colleges. We need to streamline pathways from high school to community college to four-year institutions. These are the things that are going to much more prevalent moving forward.”

When asked if the phrase ‘pent-up demand,’ which is being heard in many contexts as the economy continues to grow, also pertains to higher education, those we spoke with offered a qualified ‘yes,’ noting that there is demand for education that is career-focused.

“I think we’re going to see increased enrollment in the online space, and I think it’s because women know that, to advance their careers and to realize their career aspirations, many of them need a credential, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree — if you’re going to teach in Massachusetts, eventually you’ll need a master’s degree,” Doran said. “There’s a lot of momentum around educational attainment, particularly for our students. That’s because we’re really focused on student services, internship, career development, and making sure our curriculum aligns with workforce needs.”

Thompson agreed, noting that, as the number of high-school graduates continues to decline, colleges and universities need to increase their focus on those who may have tried college and stopped because life got in the way.

“Now, they’re probably looking for opportunities for growth and moving up in their jobs,” she noted. “So we need to do more to reach adult populations; faculty are starting to look at the way they offer courses, and probably will be offering more things in a blended format.

“Also, we’re looking at more things we can do with community colleges,” she went on. “We need to streamline pathways from high school to community college to four-year institutions. These are the things that are going to much more prevalent moving forward.”

Beyond enrollment and a long list or protocols to be followed and updated as necessary, COVID has brought other challenges as well, and these will certainly continue in 2022, said those we spoke with. Dumay told BusinessWest that managing through the pandemic has been difficult and exhausting on many levels.

“Across higher education, and across all industries, for that matter, people are tired,” he said. “If you ask any college president, they would say they and their teams are … fill in your favorite word — they’re on edge, they’re tired, they’re demoralized. And we’re paying attention to all that.”

Elaborating, he said ‘all that’ means paying more attention to the needs of students, obviously, but also faculty and staff, many of whom are coping with pandemic-related issues off the job as well as on it, and also focusing on the mental health of students.

“Students have different ways of coping with the uncertainty of the time,” he said. “And we’re seeing, across all campuses, a lot more students with mental-health issues, and COVID is exacerbating that.

“All of these things have created a whole lot of challenges, and there’s been very little let-up,” Dumay said in conclusion, adding that this trend, in addition to all the others, will almost certainly continue into the new year.”

Thompson agreed. “I think we’re going to be living with this virus for a long time,” she said. “I see it continuing to mutate; I see us having to be vigilant with hand washing, wearing masks, paying attention to our health and well-being, and doing whatever we need to do.”


— George O’Brien