At a recent cookout behind the red-brick mill building that houses UNH Manchester, senior Derek Burkhardt describes what’s been an eight-year run to get his bachelor’s.
“I actually attended UNH Manchester right out of high school,” says Burkhardt. “But I took some time off in between school to save up some money to be able to afford school, but also to join AmeriCorps. So once I was done with that I came back to continue my education.”
Like many students here Burkhardt says he chose UNH Manchester because that’s where he lives.
The school’s location has always been its calling card.
UNH Manchester was established in 1985 as the university’s commuter campus for non-traditional students. About 800 students go to school there. A third of whom are 24 or older—all are interested in jobs.
Responding To Market Demand
“I think there is a nationwide increased emphasis on employment, and vocation and earnings potential,” says Susan Walsh, an English professor at UNH Manchester.
Walsh also sits on a committee working to implement the recommendations made by the Huron Consulting Group. The so-called Huron Report was commissioned by UNH President Mark Huddleston. It calls for UNH Manchester to reinvent itself with a focus on the STEM and business fields. It also suggests the school take a page from Northeastern University by incorporating workplace experience into the academic mix.
“We needed to differentiate ourselves more in the marketplace, in an effort to help build enrollment,” says Mike Hickey, the Interim Dean at UNH Manchester.
With a BA as his highest degree, Hickey’s more of a businessman than an academic. He was president of Verizon New Hampshire.
“I think one of the reasons that I was hired for this position was because of the relationships I developed at that time.”
Those relationships might help UNH Manchester. It’s been in a difficult spot for years. Enrollment is flat. And its expenses have doubled in the last decade. There’s also more competition for students from cheaper community colleges and Southern New Hampshire University.
The Huron Report calls for boosting revenue through higher enrollment. Hickey hopes UNH Manchester’s new emphasis will mean good things for UNH as a whole.
Improving The Optics
“What the university really needed to do was to kind of turn Thompson Hall around so that the Merrimack Valley and Manchester was considered more of its front yard rather than its back yard.”
New street signs around Manchester now point residents to the school’s Commercial street location. And Hickey says once the STEM programs begin to launch next fall and the integrated workplace programs roll into place, the school will get a new name. Manchester will be de-emphasized in favor of the school’s new focus.
But higher ed economist Ronald Ehrenberg says building a strong experiential learning program is easier said than done.
“When you speak about Northeastern, you speak about an institution which for long periods of time has established relationships with employers in the area and I don’t know whether that will be enough to distinguish them from the competitive pressures it faces.”
A Public, 4-Year Option For Non-Trads
Ehrenberg says UNH Manchester’s location will always help it attract low-income, adult, and working students. But if the goal is major enrollment gains, Ehrenberg says there aren’t many ways to do it.
“You either have to work very, very hard to get traditional-age students from out of state, or you have to work to get growth in the non-traditional college age population.”
Right now, UNH Manchester is focused on simply moving ahead.
Faculty will meet over the summer to learn from experts in experiential learning, many from Northeastern.
New STEM-related programs like ‘Computer Science and Entrepreneurship’ will begin in the fall. And Hickey says they’ll be hiring more professors for programs like biology, business and mechanical engineering.
Hickey says all that will require more space in the mill yard.
“So we will definitely need additional space in the Pandora building. How quickly we do that remains to be seen.
And plenty will be watching UNH Manchester’s experiment: USNH officials, other colleges, and most importantly, perhaps, potential students—and the businesses that may ultimately employ them.