BOSTON — University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan laid out a plan on Monday to create a new "online college" for adult students that he said could become the system's bulwark against increasing financial pressures on college campuses caused by competition for fewer college-aged students.

Meehan, in his annual speech to state leaders and the university community, said that in the coming months he would be meeting with senior officials and faculty on all five of the university's campuses to plan a "new online college focused solely on adult learners." He hopes the online college will gain a national profile.

The college, as described by Meehan, will offer degree completion programs, "rapid response" to workforce demand and customized credential programs for employers.

Meehan said he presented the university board of trustees last fall with a model for the online college that would "allow us to rapidly scale this platform through strategic partnerships, while implementing best practices in digital education for adult learners." The revenue generated from the online programs will be returned to the campuses, he said.

"The time for us to act is now," Meehan said.

Meehan spoke at the UMass Club before an audience of a couple hundred, including political, business and university leaders. UMass is "strong," he said, but will require "resolute action" to preserve that strength.

In his remarks, Meehan did not comment on UMass Amherst's controversial acquisition of Mount Ida College in Newton, nor the search for a new chancellor at UMass Boston, which was abandoned after faculty revolted over the finalists selected for the position. Both issues generated a slew of headlines over the past year, and a search for a permanent Boston campus leader has been put on ice for now as interim Chancellor Katherine Newman, who came from the president's office, continues to lead the campus.

UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Rob Manning acknowleged that Meehan had been "beat up" in the press, but defended the Mount Ida move, in particular, and said UMass would be in position to make future acquisitions as they present themselves if they add value to the system.

"UMass stepped in and saved that institution," Manning said. "No one could have ever done what we did to help those students and their families and we picked up an asset."

Meehan, after his speech, said UMass wanted to be in a position to "play a positive role" as the higher education sector goes through a period of upheaval, but when asked specifically about the idea of acquiring Hampshire College, which is facing possible closure, he said, "No, we're not looking at Hampshire College."

"Whether or not a university would acquire another university is a complex proces that one goes through so that is not something I have seen any data on that would make me believe that would be good for UMass at this point, but it's early in the process," Meehan said.

Meehan, who has led the university since 2015, made online learning a focal point of his "State of the University" address in 2018 as well. His proposal for an online college comes as state lawmakers are just beginning to consider funding levels for the next fiscal year, but Meehan said UMass did not yet have a projected budget for the online college, and would likely borrow the money to get it off the ground and repay that loan once the program starts generating revenue.

With Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito among those in the audience, Meehan thanked Baker for proposing to fully fund the state's share of university union contracts, but said he also supports the "Cherish Act," a bill that calls for an investment of an additional $500 million in public higher education.

The bill, offered by Sen. Jo Comerford and Reps. Paul Mark and Sean Garballey and backed by a coalition of labor and education advocacy groups, would require the state to fund public higher education at inflation-adjusted levels equivalent to those from fiscal 2001, and would freeze campus tuition and fees for five years.

"I will continue to advocate for any reasonable measure seeking to preserve the promise of affordable higher education and remove the albatross of debt from our students," Meehan said.

Citing the Federal Reserve Bank, he said that state funding for public higher education has decreased 12.5 percent since 2008 when adjusted for inflation.

"The equation is simple: As costs go up and state support fails to keep pace with inflation, we are forced to make cuts that impact the student experience, and students and their families pay and borrow more," Meehan said. He did not discuss whether he would be recommending tuition and fee increases for next year.

Baker's budget proposal for fiscal 2020 budget would increase spending for the University of Massachusetts system by $37.2 million to $562.7 million, for state universities by $10.9 million to $273.5 million, and for community colleges by $5.9 million to $294.5 million.

Baker also recommended a new $100 million trust fund aimed at reducing costs for students entering public colleges and universities.

Regional foothold

While Meehan described funding as the "most important" issue facing the university, he described a "looming demographic crisis" that would put further pressure on campus as capacity and demand fall further out of sync.

Meehan said declining birth rates during the last recession will lead to a "dramatic" drop in the number of college-aged people in New England starting in 2026, reducing the potential pool of enrollees by 32,000 to 54,000 in a region with the highest concentration of colleges in the country.

"Make no mistake. This is an existential threat to entire sectors of higher education," Meehan said.

Repeating his prediction that more colleges and universities will close or merge, Meehan said UMass is in "a better position than most" to compete for fewer students due to the combination of quality, affordability and scale.

The online college, Meehan said, is one way that UMass can create a new revenue stream to help keep tuition and fees affordable while also helping the state address a skills gap for employees and a shortage of workers who meet the needs of employers.

Full-time and part-time online degree programs for students pursuing bachelor's or master's degrees will continue, but the online college will allow UMass to expand into a market for adults that other universities are already tapping, Meehan said. He noted that more than 20 percent, or approximately 1 million people in Massachusetts, have some college credit, but no degree.

"Out-of-state institutions without our same reputation for academic excellence are enrolling adult learners in Massachusetts in the types of programs we seek to offer," Meehan said.

He specifically cited Southern New Hampshire University, which enrolls 15,000 Massachusetts residents. He also said Purdue Global and Penn State World Campus are recruiting in Massachusetts, and Arizona State and the University of Maryland have shown that it's possible to scale online platforms quickly.

"It's predicted that over the next several years four to five national players with strong regional footholds will be established," Meehan said. "And we intend to be one of them."

After the speech, Gov. Baker said UMass has already done well developing its online offerings on the individual campuses, and said the push to reach adult learners looking to continue their education or receive training for new work opportunities makes sense.

"I think it's a hugely important part of the future of higher education," Baker said. "If you look at any of the data, it all says that learning going forward, especially for adults, is going to need to be a continuous exercise. Most people, as president Meehan said, have jobs and families and need to be able to fit this in in a way that works for them."

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