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Sunday, August 3, 2014

UMass Lowell seeks more Nashua-area students as it works to move upscale

As the University
of Massachusetts Lowell works to avoid higher education’s equivalent of the business world’s “valley of death” – stranded between small enough and big enough when everything changes around you – it hopes to draw on a secret weapon: Greater Nashua.

“We don’t look at the state border as a real border,” Marty Meehan, the school’s chancellor, said during an editorial board meeting with The Telegraph on Tuesday. “Southern New Hampshire is an extension of what has been UMass Lowell’s principal market.” ...

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As the University
of Massachusetts Lowell works to avoid higher education’s equivalent of the business world’s “valley of death” – stranded between small enough and big enough when everything changes around you – it hopes to draw on a secret weapon: Greater Nashua.

“We don’t look at the state border as a real border,” Marty Meehan, the school’s chancellor, said during an editorial board meeting with The Telegraph on Tuesday. “Southern New Hampshire is an extension of what has been UMass Lowell’s principal market.”

The university had 1,173 students from Greater Nashua last academic year, including the three closest towns in Massachusetts. That was about 7 percent of the 16,932 total, which includes 9,804 traditional undergraduates, 4,198 graduates and the rest continuing or online.

Almost 1.5 percent of the school’s students were from Nashua last year.

Students are drawn at least in part by the Proximity Regional Rates Program, which can cut up to $6,000 off annual tuition for students from as far away as Plaistow, Manchester or Lyndeborough (which is home to one current UMass Lowell student, one school employee and 11 alumni, according to the school).

The Proximity Rates program makes tuition almost as cheap for full-time undergraduates from southern New Hampshire as it is for in-state students, although it doesn’t affect the larger operating fee or room and meal charges: It cuts total annual costs from $38,700 to $32,300, which is still about $9,000 more than for in-state students.

UMass Lowell would like to increase the number of local students from its neighboring city, since the campus is less than a 20-minute drive away from Nashua – when it isn’t morning rush hour, at least. An increase is not only part of the overall growth estimate –
it wants to have 12,000 undergraduates by 2018, an increase of one-fifth – but should help the overall mix of students.

“We are working for a more diverse student body, reaching outside the state,” Meehan said.

Demographic challenges

UMass Lowell has been on a serious growth curve in recent years: Enrollment is up about 45 percent in the last seven years, and the school says that has been accomplished even while raising the academic level of accepted students and decreasing the percentage of freshmen who drop out.

In addition, the percentage of instruction by adjuncts, the term for part-time teachers, has been reduced.

The school still faces two factors that are rattling all New England colleges and universities: a declining number of teenagers in the demographically challenged Northeast and increased competition from online education.

Combined with continued increases in tuition and fees, as well as growing student debt, and the results can be seen in several areas.

For example, there’s the recent decision by Mount Washington College (formerly Hesser College) to close its Nashua branch and retrench to Manchester, and Franklin Pierce University’s elimination of several majors, including mathematics.

NHTI, Concord’s Community College, recently announced faculty cutbacks, Chester College closed in 2012 and the financially troubled Daniel Webster College was sold to ITT Educational Services in 2009.

At the same time, Southern New Hampshire University is drawing attention, students and apparent financial success with an online-education emphasis that is based not on its leafy Manchester campus, but in Millyard offices that deliberately feel more like a startup than a college.

This spring, SNHU ratcheted up the pressure by offering a couple of online-only bachelor’s degrees for a total of $10,000 each. Few bricks-and-mortar colleges can survive financially on $10,000 bachelor’s degrees, and UMass Lowell isn’t among them, even with Massachusetts taxpayer support that exceeds the level given New Hampshire’s university system.

Moving upscale

UMass Lowell’s strategy, again using a business parallel, is to move upscale. It wants to convince more students that it’s worth paying up to $152,000, including room and board, to get a degree in Lowell.

With that in mind, during the past half-dozen years it has:

Moved up to Division I athletics in everything but football, with the resulting splurge in national publicity and a boost in the intangible “campus life.”

Erected a half-dozen major buildings, including the $80 million Emerging Technologies and Information Center; a $95 million, 230,000-square-foot complex for student life; two residence halls holding almost 1,000 students; better athletic facilities; and lots more parking. It broke ground this year on a $40 million business school.

Polished its online classes created via the Blackboard software platform (the school hasn’t joined any of the high-profile online-education initiatives such as EdX or Coursera), which includes an incentive program for professors linked to the number and success of online students.

These are generally part of traditional classes, since online-only education remains tiny, but they’re important: Meehan said online courses gross around $40 million a year, not bad in a school with an operating budget of around $345 million and a $65 million endowment.

Increased its focus on technology degrees – not only the plastics engineering for which the school has been known since its days as the University of Lowell, but also areas such as nanotechnology and robotics. (Having Bill Nye the Science Guy as graduation speaker last year was no accident.)

This not only attracts students, but attracts industry funding and cooperation: Cooperative education partners range from Fidelity Investments in Merrimack to NextEra, which owns the Seabrook Station nuclear plant, to Mercury Computer in Salem.

The tech emphasis also helps attract faculty who can attract grants and other funding for research and equipment. The school says its income from licenses of patents and technology was $386,000 last year, while its research and development expenditures per tenure-track faculty has risen by half since 2008, to $154,000.

It’s also a lure to overseas students, who tend to be more technically oriented and who also tend to pay full freight.

Boosting master’s and doctoral degrees – the goal is to double the 2008 total by 2018.

World-class aspirations

Will all this be enough for UMass Lowell to thrive in what looks to be trying times for higher education in this country?

Some argue the demographic and technology changes could create a world in which continuing education and less expensive entry-level schools thrive, as do the big-name schools that can attract students from around the globe, but that colleges in the middle will be caught in a financial crunch: That is, a New England with community colleges and near-Ivy League schools but not much else.

It’s far from certain this will happen, but UMass Lowell wants to be as close to the upper end as it can, just in case.

“We want to be a world-class university,” Meehan said. “That’s what we’re moving toward.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).