Northwest College: Budget hearing draws concerns over college enrollment and leadership

Posted 7/27/21

At its monthly meeting in July, the Northwest College Board of Trustees passed a budget for the coming fiscal year. It was the culmination of months of work to bring the college’s spending in …

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Northwest College: Budget hearing draws concerns over college enrollment and leadership


At its monthly meeting in July, the Northwest College Board of Trustees passed a budget for the coming fiscal year. It was the culmination of months of work to bring the college’s spending in line with the declines in state and local support, which are expected to total nearly $600,000 in reduced support for NWC. 

While the college managed not to cut programs, some services have been cut — including the child care center — and six staff and five faculty positions were eliminated. 

Members of the community spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, which followed the budget hearing. They expressed concerns over the budget cuts, reduced services, enrollment declines, and the future of the college.


Improving enrollment

Laura Riley, who spoke at a few previous board meetings, warned that declining enrollment would reduce the amount of state funding the college receives.

Appropriations for Wyoming’s seven community colleges go through the Wyoming Community College Commission (WCCC), which dispenses the funding across all the colleges based on a formula that includes enrollment. If enrollment drops, NWC’s share of the state dollars also drops.

“Even if the funding were to increase, we will still get the smallest part of the pie if we continue down the path we’re going down,” Laura Riley said.

Riley cited a 44% decline in full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment numbers at NWC from fall 2010 to fall 2020 — the highest drop of the state’s community colleges. Citing the FTE figures, Riley said the college had lost 44% of students, but FTE is a measure of total credit hours taken, divided by 12. The drop in the number of actual  students enrolled at NWC between 2010 and 2020 was 33.6%, falling from 2,173 to 1,443. This was still the highest drop in the state, with the next highest being Western Community College, which saw a drop of 31.9% during the same time period. The average drop was 22.5%. 

“Status quo is no longer an option. We need to turn enrollment around,” Riley urged. She didn’t propose any specific ways for the college to address the problem.

NWC’s enrollment figures have seen some improvement in the past year. This occurred during a difficult period for higher education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the rapid conversion of in-person classes to online and hybrid formats. 

From fall 2019 to fall 2020, NWC’s 1.2% decline in enrollment was the second-best among the state’s community colleges. Casper College led the way with a 0.4% increase, but the average was a drop of 7.3%. 

Meanwhile, NWC’s summer headcount figures increased by 34% over summer 2019, which was the best in Wyoming. Central Wyoming College had no change, while the other community colleges saw drops in enrollment. NWC’s drop in headcount since the summer 2010 stood at 44.4%, just above the average of 44.2% for all colleges in the state.  

Riley also claimed that the number of faculty had dropped from 110 in 2020 to 61 in 2021, which would mean the college lost nearly half its faculty. 

However, the figures compared two different counts: According to the institutional profile on the NWC website, there were 110 faculty members in 2020, with 59 being full time. This year, there are 104 total faculty, 61 of which are full time. 


New programs

Mallory Riley, Laura Riley’s daughter, is also pushing for change at NWC. 

“I actually think Northwest College has a ton of passionate people who care a lot. I just think they need some direction and possibly better leadership,” she said. 

Mallory Riley also spoke during the public comment portion of the July board meeting, criticizing the handling of a meeting with an administrator at Montana State University — Northern (MSU-N). 

Karl Bear, a former NWC admissions director, has proposed a relationship between MSU-N and NWC for a diesel mechanic program. Bear planned to have an administrator from MSU-N tour the NWC campus on July 8 and invited NWC Interim President Lisa Watson and NWC Vice President for Academic Affairs Gerald Giraud to meet with the administrator. However, neither Watson nor Giraud were available that day and called the MSU-N administrator to schedule a Zoom meeting this fall.

In her comments at the July meeting, Mallory Riley criticized the college administration for not informing Bear of the cancellation. 

Bear, who wasn’t at the board meeting, said Giraud apologized for not keeping him in the loop on the rescheduling, and said he’s pleased the discussion with MSU-N will continue in the fall. 

In an interview, Watson said NWC is happy to discuss “articulation options for career and technical program pathways from NWC to MSU-N bachelor-level programs.” 

The president said the concept being explored is a transfer pathway, since NWC doesn’t have an automotive program. 

“So the potential for NWC students to transfer would not be seamless for diesel like it could be for other existing programs,” Watson said. 

From Mallory Riley’s point of view, NWC is not following through on opportunities for new programs, which she says is imperative if the college is going to turn around its enrollment.

During the spring 2020, she offered to teach a legal assistant program for free. The college developed some basic marketing materials, and Riley said the administration seemed very open to the idea at first. She was under the impression the class was going to be offered in the fall, but then the college didn’t pursue it. 

“The ball got dropped, and that’s what I’ve heard is the tendency at the college,” Mallory Riley said. 

She also said the cuts to staffing are making it hard for prospective students to get information and creates an unwelcoming experience for those who might be interested in enrolling.

“Going into Northwest College sometimes is like going into a ghost town,” Mallory Riley said. 

She said the website is difficult to navigate and advertising, despite recent improvement, still lacks in the robust recruiting efforts that are needed. 

The college has been spreading tasks over fewer employees as budget cuts have led to years of staffing reductions. Mallory Riley said NWC could use volunteers in the community to help fill some of the gaps. 

“I know there are a variety of past faculty who would be happy to donate some time,” she said. “I’ve offered to help with recruitment efforts.”

Watson said NWC appreciates those who are interested in doing volunteer work at the college, but there are legal issues with filling staffing needs with volunteers. The Fair Labor Standards Act limits the college’s ability to utilize volunteers. 

“Whereas private employers are allowed to use volunteers for positions that are normally paid, public employers, where similar paid positions exist, are only allowed to use volunteers under very specific conditions,” Watson said.

Giraud said it’s even more complicated when it comes to volunteer faculty starting a new program. 

“The process for initiating a new credit program includes several layers of review within the college, including both administrative and faculty review,” Giraud explained. “New programs require approval from the Wyoming Community College Commission and sometimes from our accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission.”



Mallory Riley is also critical of a proposal to sell off Trapper Village West. She argues the college will need the housing for students and faculty in the future. 

The proposed divestment of the property is part of a larger master housing plan that seeks to “right size” the number of available units to fit student demand — which is shrinking not only due to declines in enrollment but also because students are living longer at home. The plan also adjusts the types of units to accommodate non-traditional students, who are older and sometimes have families. In turn, the plan cuts costs for ongoing maintenance of the unused units. 

The housing plan factors in projections of rebounding enrollment. Barring a phenomenal reversal, it would take many years before the college would run out of units, even under the reduced number laid out in the plan. 

A buyer would likely use Trapper Village West for rental properties, meaning the units would still be available for housing. However, Mallory Riley is concerned it won’t be affordable, as housing is becoming much more expensive. 

“It’s really short sighted,” she said. “I think we should think in the long term.”

She didn’t propose a means by which the college would provide subsidized housing at Trapper Village West.


Listening to feedback 

At the July board meeting, Mallory Riley said she went to local businesses, talking to people about their attitudes toward the college. She said many didn’t trust the college and weren’t considering sending their kids there.

Mallory Riley said she heard many comments that the board and administration aren’t listening to the feedback they’re receiving — a sentiment Laura Riley also expressed. 

Watson disputes this is the case and points out that in the past couple of years, the college has held town hall meetings, focus groups and feedback sessions. The board has a public comment portion of every meeting, with the option available via Zoom for those who can’t attend in person. 

“It saddens me that there is a perception by some community members that the college is not listening when we’ve done more listening and outreach over the last two years than probably the past 20 years combined,” Watson said. “We have reviewed the comments, many of which support the project work we have been doing related to enrollment, marketing and program expansion.”

In a July 2020 memo, NWC Communications and Marketing Director Carey Miller outlined how the college held a series of strategic listening sessions in Powell, Cody and Meeteetse. The sessions produced 743 qualitative data points, which were used for a Vision 2025 plan to champion student success, attract new students, innovate academic programming and revitalize the college’s facilities, Miller wrote.

The college is also developing a transformation plan that aims to find the best approach to its programmatic offerings that will attract students.

Mallory Riley said she is aware of the transformation plan but said no one has seen it. The plan won’t be completed until this fall, but it was developed with surveys, focus groups, a half-day summit, and faculty/staff advisory group working sessions.

“I can assure our community that we are listening and committed to transformational work that aligns our budgeted resources with community-wide needs,” Watson said. 

The board holds monthly meetings, usually the second Monday of every month. A citizen’s open forum starts at 5 p.m. for those who wish to provide comments to the board. Community members can receive guidelines and forum request forms at