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March 18, 2019

Assumption, the science university

Photo | Courtesy Michele Lemons, director of the Assumpstion College Center for Neuroscience, serves as an associate professor of biology.

Assumption College has long been known for its liberal arts programs, like psychology and traditional areas of study like marketing and human services.

But now the Catholic college in Worcester is branching out to capitalize on more in-demand majors. A neuroscience major started last fall. A nursing major is slated to begin this upcoming fall, as is a cybersecurity major.

In adding these new majors – along with other initiatives like seeking university status – Assumption is broadening its appeal to applicants, as other colleges close or are in danger of closing.

Assumption leaders insist the school isn't abandoning its roots. The college, founded in 1904, still requires each student to study theology, and the college chapel is a central piece of the campus.

“I'm not sure that I'd characterize it as an entirely new direction,” Assumption Provost Louise Carroll Keeley said. “We still see it rooted in our mission as a liberal arts institution.”

Colleges shifting focus

Liberal arts colleges like Assumption are looking beyond liberal arts for a reason: so are their students.

The number of liberal arts degrees given nationally was flat in the decade ending in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education. During the same time, the number of degrees in homeland security and law enforcement doubled, as did communications.

Small liberal arts schools have closed like Atlantic Union College in Lancaster and Mount Ida College in Newton, and Hampshire College in Amherst, known for its non-traditional curriculum, has sought a merger.

“The approach that Assumption is taking of bridging between the liberal arts and building on its liberal arts heritage and the career opportunities available makes all the sense in the world,” said Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Boston labor analytics firm Burning Glass.

Colleges should emphasize skills employers still value, like collaboration and writing skills, vital across a range of industries, Sigelman said.

“A critical piece of this is remembering that this doesn't have to be an either-or,” Sigelman said.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities advocates for a course load teaching ethical judgment, oral communication and working in teams.

“It's more important now than ever before,” said Lynn Pasquerella, the association's president. “The best preparation is a liberal arts degree that allows them to be adaptable and flexible, and prepares them for a future in which many jobs have not yet been invented.”

A survey of hundreds of business executives and hiring managers done by the AAC&U found a liberal arts education still prepares students for the workforce, Pasquerella said. But convincing colleges and legislators to stay with that emphasis is not as easy, she said.

“We need to make it clear to students and parents the clear line between a liberal arts education and career success,” Pasquerella said.

New areas of study

Assumption began enrolling students for the first time last fall in its neuroscience major, meant to prepare students for careers as occupational or physical therapists, optometrists or physician assistants.

The neuroscience major extends what had been Assumption dipping its toes in the water of the nervous system science field, with neuroscience concentrations for two other majors: biology and psychology. The college created the Center for Neuroscience, which includes lectures from neuroscientists, summer internship opportunities and community outreach programs.

The center was critical for extending the area of study outside the classroom, said Michele Lemons, an associate professor of biology and the director of the Center for Neuroscience.

“It's a really rich community where it's not just the classes,” she said. “Classes are important, but they're not everything.”

Traditional liberal arts will still be central to the coursework for neuroscience majors, with the college emphasizing traditional liberal arts courses, like philosophy, a foreign language or ethics.

A cybersecurity major starting this fall will prepare students for jobs in health care, finance, insurance or social media – any organization that values its data, said Raymond Albert, the cybersecurity program director who joined Assumption last fall from the University of Maine system to lead the new major.

“Cybersecurity is very dependent on a well-rounded liberal arts foundation,” Albert said. “Our students will be at a significant competitive advantage when they enter the workforce compared to students who are in more technically oriented institutions.”

Thoughtful changes

The broadening of options for majors comes as Assumption is reorganizing its academic departments and looking to rebrand as Assumption University, in order to attract more applicants.

President Francesco Cesareo in February announced Assumption was grouping majors into schools: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Business, the School of Nursing, the School of Health Professions and the School of Graduate & Professional Studies.

That arrangement will help Assumption develop new course offerings.

The new majors were added with careful consideration, Keeley said. Any new major must win approval from academic departments, a college curriculum board, the faculty senate, administrators and finally, the board of trustees.

That process comes after research of enrollment and job-field data, and an analysis with the college's financial leaders to ensure a new major is feasible.

The process took more than a year for the neuroscience major. Assumption hired a consultant who found a potential for growth in the field, Lemons said.

For the nursing major, the process starts further back. Assumption has to hire from scratch because it hasn't had any professors in that field until now.

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