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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

UWW History

Our History

The UMass Amherst University Without Walls (UWW) Department of Interdisciplinary Studies was founded in 1971 as part of a national movement to increase access to higher education for non-traditional students. With funding from the U.S. Office of Education, UMass Amherst was one of 19 colleges and universities across the nation to start University Without Walls programs with the "radical" goal of helping non-traditional students get a college education. These original nineteen schools were pioneers. At the time, the idea that traditional four-year universities like UMass Amherst should open their doors to non-traditional students was nothing short of revolutionary.   

We Built It and They Came  

UWW opened up shop in a tiny office in the heart of campus. Led by a small, dedicated team of UMass Amherst professors and graduate students, UWW was immediately deluged by phone inquiries and visitors grateful for the opportunity to finish what they started or dreamed of starting years earlier.  

In the beginning, students attended on-campus classes, and when they could not get to the university, UMass UWW professors went to them, teaching classes in workplaces, prisons, and in the community. In the 1990's UMass UWW professors were even known to haul their own office computers to community sites week after week so those without computer access could complete assignments.  

Diversity from the Start 

From the beginning, the student body was diverse. Similar to today, there were business owners, politicians, managers and administrators, health care and human service workers, and educators, as well Jazz musicians, artists, writers, Vietnam veterans, and stay-at-home moms—for whom returning to school was a great act of courage. 

Changing with the Times 

For fifty years, UWW has continued to be a pioneer in the field of adult education and prior learning assessment, implementing community-based programming, introducing the part-time student experience as well as blended courses to the UMass Amherst campus, and offering degrees 100% online. And although faces have changed over the years and we're not in that tiny office anymore, our mission remains the same—to help adult students complete their first bachelor's degrees at a world-class public university.