This fall, Maria College in Albany became a four-year institution with the introduction of a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. Up to a dozen other four-year majors will follow over the next few years.

The college's president, Dr. Lea Johnson, says the change will herald a new era for the 55-year-old school, which was founded and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy.

"We're going to be stronger than we've ever been," Dr. Johnson said. "It's necessary. Unless they're a publicly-funded community college, two-year colleges are going by the wayside. The entry-level degree now is no longer an associate's."

College administration had pursued four-year status as early as 1961, but the New York State Education Department at the time determined that Maria College needed to operate as a junior college for five years.

Back burner
In the decades that followed, enrollment was surging in Maria's two-year programs, which provided valuable degrees in areas like early childhood education, nursing, secretarial science and liberal arts, so Dr. Johnson surmises that officials put the college's charter on the back burner all these years.

Her predecessor, Sister Laureen Fitzgerald, RSM, who retired in 2012 after more than three decades of leadership, revived the idea, and Dr. Johnson made it a priority when she became president last year.

"I could not have come here [otherwise]," Dr. Johnson said. "We have built a solid reputation in just a few areas" - including nursing, the only weekend paralegal program in the state and an occupational therapy assistant program - but "everything's changed and it will continue to change. We need to evolve, too."

Dr. Johnson foresees hiring additional professors as more majors are added - a process that will take about half a year per major. A full-time psychology professor joined the faculty this fall, making it a department of five, and people will be hired for additional recruitment activities as the college realizes its new potential.

Research reveals
As part of a strategic planning process involving the school community, Maria's administration hired a marketing research firm to assess public perceptions of the college and also spent $1 million on renovations in the past year. Included in the changes are a new welcome center and coffee shop, two new classrooms where the early childhood education used to be - the program ended last spring - and repurposing old convent "cell" rooms into faculty offices.

Dr. Johnson wants to make University Heights student housing in Albany available to Maria students - though, as it turns out, many are already using it - so the college can start recruiting outside the area and eventually boost its enrollment from 1,000 to 2,000.

She'd also like to reintroduce athletic programs, perhaps by renting fields away from the three-building campus.

She plans to do all of this while keeping the $13,000 tuition down. There should be no problems doing so, since the administration and board of trustees have always spent prudently. Maria has stayed in the black while boasting an 82-percent employment rate for its graduates, as well as the convenience of evening, weekend and online offerings.

Psych majors
Dr. Johnson said the psychology department has the capability for 100 students; the first 10 students majoring in psychology transferred to Maria this semester after the Middle States Commission on Higher Education approved the degree. The program will connect students with unpaid internships or paid cooperative experience.

Psychology majors can go on to earn higher degrees or work in addiction counseling centers or homeless shelters, among other places. In meeting with presidents from the 16 other colleges sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy throughout the country - and through national research - Dr. Johnson discovered psychology is one of the most sought-after degrees.

"If you talk to high school students, that's one of their favorite areas," she said, adding that she was a psychology major in college, "and I never thought I'd become a college president."

The next degree Maria hopes to launch is in healthcare management. The common thread linking all of the college's degrees is service.

Maria College started as a school for the formation of religious sisters and evolved into a place for sisters to study education. Laypeople joined the student body in 1964. Sisters still serve as faculty, staff and volunteers. Religion classes are offered but not required of students. Dr. Johnson is the first lay president.