On Monday, at the annual State of the University address at the UMass Club, UMass President Marty Meehan announced the university system will move into adult online education, to better compete with Southern New Hampshire University and other big schools that offer courses and degrees online.
Meehan said one big reason to move into online education is that the number of college students in New England is declining.
“In New England, there will be between 32,000 and 54,000 fewer college-aged students just seven years from now,” Meehan said. “That means colleges and universities will have too much capacity and not enough demand at a time when the economic model in higher education is already straining under its own weight.”
Meehan said on-campus education is increasingly expensive, and taxpayer support for public universities has been in a long decline.
“Since 2008, state funding for public higher education has decreased when you adjust for inflation by 12.5 percent, according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston,” Meehan said. “The equation is simple: As costs go up, inability to keep pace with inflation from the state, we make cuts that impact students, and our students and their families pay and borrow more.”
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Meehan said by offering online education for adults, UMass will address the needs of the people least able to pay off their college loans: those who did not graduate.
“Approximately 1 million adults in Massachusetts have some college credit but no bachelor’s degree,” he said.
“In that context, I think it’s a Band-Aid for a broken system,” said Zach Bears, executive director of Mass PHENOM, a grassroots organization that is pushing for more funding for public higher education.
“Those adult students, there never should have been a system where the only way for them to get an education was to take on debt in the first place, so in that sense, it’s good that we’re providing more options and trying to fix that. In the long term, we need to address the systemic challenges that have forced so many students into that position,” Bears said.
The UMass plan for a national online college did get the support of Gov. Charlie Baker.
“UMass as a system should be the adult online education leader here in the commonwealth for people who are either looking to secure a credential because of their place of employment or to finish the degree that they never got finished or to pursue a degree in something that’s particularly important to them,” Baker said after the address.
UMass would be competing with universities that have been in the online education business for years: Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State, Purdue and Penn State. Meehan says UMass intends to become one of four or five major national players in that business with strong footholds in their region.
Meehan did not ignore on-campus education in his annual address. He endorsed legislation that would restore public higher education funding to 2001 levels.
That’s something Bears was happy to hear. “Higher-education funding has dropped by over a third per student since 2001,” Bears said.
And Meehan pointed out that one aspect of UMass finances is improving: its endowment. When Meehan took over the presidency in 2005, he made it one of his priorities to increase the endowment. At the time, it was $768 million. On Monday night, he said it’s almost $1 billion.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.