LOWELL -- As it edges closer to its 19,000 enrollment goal, UMass Lowell is working on formalizing community college and business agreements that will put an affordable education within reach of even more students and fill workforce needs.
On Thursday, the university announced its first $5 million gift from an alumnus, meeting its $125 million fundraising goal, and will soon welcome Oprah Winfrey for a much-heralded visit.
"We're stronger than we've ever been," UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said in an Editorial Board meeting with The Sun on Wednesday.
For the past three years, UML has been cited by "The Chronicle of Higher Education" as one of the top 10 growing universities, with enrollment growth in undergraduate, graduate and online education programs, she said.
As it grows, Moloney said UML will stay focused on the region and maintain the culture that the school is known for. Many students are first-generation college attendees, working their way through school, and these populations will continue to be served, she said.
Knowing the challenges these students face and that they may not earn their degrees within the traditional four years, UML set a goal to get 60 percent of students graduated in six years from the time they enter the university by 2020. The goal was met three years ahead of schedule, and continues to be surpassed, Moloney said.
"We're retaining our students at a higher rate, we're graduating them and we feel really great looking at these numbers," she said.
Drilling down into student data -- and responding with programming and scheduling to meet their needs -- plays a big role in these successes, Moloney said.
Among the items Moloney discussed:
- Alumnus Brian Rist, president and founder of Florida-based Storm Smart Industries and already a scholarship contributor at UML, will donate $5 million to the university -- its single largest gift yet, Moloney said.
Thanks to this gift, the university has reached its $125 million fundraising goal two years ahead of schedule, she said. The goal will now be raised to $150 million, Moloney said.
- The Lowell Connections program already assists Middlesex Community College students in entering programs at UML, but the institutions are looking to formalize their relationship and create a pathway for students to earn bachelor degrees.
Moloney said it's part of efforts for the UMass system and community colleges to find new ways to work together, create greater efficiencies and maximize opportunities for students. She described a package deal that would include housing, courses at both campuses and an "honors-to-honors" component.
The deal would make a degree more affordable and help "to put it in a kid's mind, that you can get there, and what's the path," Moloney said.
- She said she meets regularly with executives from companies around the region to discuss their workforce and staffing needs. UML already has cooperative education arrangements with many businesses, giving students real world, hands-on learning opportunities, Moloney said.
Over the past three years, co-op program participants have earned a collective $24 million through these jobs, she said.
"While we're trying to graduate them in six years, we also feel it's important for them to take a semester or a year to take advantage of these jobs and this work," she said.
Moloney said she's looking to deepen these partnerships in ways that are even more mutually beneficial, including joint research opportunities and further student sponsorships.
"Instead of one-offs, how about, take a group of co-op students and in exchange, we do some on-site training for you," she said as an example.
She said two major companies have signed on to be preferred partners, but she can't publicly name them just yet.
- Part of UML's expansion plan has been to gut and update older buildings to meet changing needs, Moloney said.
Dandeneau Hall, the former Pasteur Hall, which houses the mechanical engineering and computer science departments, was transformed and reopened this fall. Perry Hall, another engineering building, is being redone and will reopen in January.
After the state pulled back its initial funding to help with the Perry Hall renovations, UML will soon recoup the proceeds from the sale of its abandoned West Campus in Chelmsford to offset the costs, Moloney said. She said the university is working with the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance as to how the property will be disposed, and they have not yet settled on whether it will be auctioned off or go through the request for proposals process.
- Coburn Hall, the education and psychology building, will be next up for renovations, which are expected to take about a year, Moloney said. It comes as part of an overall expansion in the College of Education, she said.
"The commonwealth needs more teachers, more diverse teachers, and that's a role I think we're uniquely positioned to fill," Moloney said.
She said it will be important to find ways to financially support the education of this next generation of teachers, as well as "bridge the financial gap" for "high-need and high-risk" students.
- Moloney acknowledged the ongoing fight for higher adjunct salary and benefits, and said she believes what has been offered is reasonable.
"We don't feel that a 46 percent increase on an already fair salary is a fair request," she said.
Moloney said most adjunct lecturers at UML typically teach two courses or fewer and work less than 18 hours a week, and so are not eligible for state benefits.