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Mary Baldwin receives gift to launch Palmer College of Professional Studies

Mary Baldwin UniversityA gift from industrial and organizational psychologist, and retired financial services human resources executive, Susan Nolan Palmer, a 1967 Mary Baldwin alum, is helping Mary Baldwin University launch a new named college.

The Palmer College of Professional Studies will overhaul current online learning platforms and add targeted new programs for nontraditional students.

“We’re going to build on MBU’s extensive track record of innovation to deliver cutting-edge, hybrid educational experiences that prepare students to meet the needs of the new economy, and help them graduate into jobs,” said Chief Online Officer Will Webb, who is leading the expansion and will serve as vice president of the Palmer College.

In 1977 Mary Baldwin became Virginia’s first institution of higher education to offer degree tracks that catered to nontraditional learners. Participants studied at satellite centers positioned throughout the state while continuing to work and raise families. Accelerated classes, skills-based training for workplace promotability, and enhanced flexibility were hallmarks.

Webb calls MBU’s new Palmer College a similar evolution for the digital age.

Programming will focus on meeting areas of high workforce demand like teaching, social work, criminal justice, marketing, and business administration. Online classes will be formatted to maximize flexibility for working students. But Webb — who has spent more than a decade helping revolutionize online learning methods with industry titans like Southern New Hampshire University — says the true selling point will be MBU’s quality of delivery.

“We’re creating a learning experience that’s going to redefine what’s possible, in and outside the classroom, by creating an education platform for the future of work,” he said.

A team of purpose-recruited, specially trained faculty, support staff, and online learning experts will deliver an intimate and highly personalized digital learning experience designed for today’s on-the-go lifestyle. Partnerships with local, regional, and national businesses and organizations will bring further value for students. A series of interprofessional workplace co-ops will provide on-the-job experience, opportunities to test classroom concepts and discuss outcomes, and a means to develop skills for target jobs. These relationships will be tailored to create a talent pool for employers — and an employment pipeline for graduates.

“We’re going to do more than simply educate students then wish them luck in the job market,” said Palmer, who teaches human capital in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s weekend executive MBA program. “We’re going to help these students discover what they’re passionate about, teach them related skills, and help plug them into great jobs with great employers.”

The named college is the latest in a long line of innovations Palmer has supported at MBU. Major contributions include creating an annual undergraduate scholarship for residential women business majors in 2013, providing financial backing to launch a one-of-a-kind social impact focused MBA program in 2016, and sponsoring an annual entrepreneurship competition for MBA students that awards seed money and comprehensive startup packages to winners.

“Susan views her philanthropy almost as ‘fuel’ that will give Mary Baldwin the capacity to grow, expand, and innovate,” said Vice President of University Advancement Charles Davis III. “She thinks carefully about her gifts from the perspective of a talented business person, with an eye toward affecting the maximal positive impact on the lives of our students.”

Early goals include growing MBU’s overall student population by more than 75 percent — from about 2,000 to 3,500 — and having more than 1,000 students complete workforce co-op programming by 2028. During that time the university aims to expand current online offerings from 30 to 42 programs, and boost retention rates to more than 75 percent.

“This is such an exciting time for us,” said Webb. “We’re in the process of creating what will be one of — if not the — top student-centered, digitally driven educational experiences in the region.”

That’s particularly important as emerging trends in higher education show today’s college students prefer to attend schools that are closer to home, but also want greater convenience around learning options.

“We see a unique opportunity for MBU to bring this platform to our very own backyard — creating real opportunities right here in Virginia to bring together students and employers, and help solve the ongoing national workforce crisis,” said Webb.


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