Northwest College considers its future

Posted 9/15/20

Northwest College held a community summit Thursday to solicit public input on the development of a strategic vision for the future of the college. A few dozen people attended the summit in person and …

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Northwest College considers its future


Northwest College held a community summit Thursday to solicit public input on the development of a strategic vision for the future of the college. A few dozen people attended the summit in person and about 50 more participated online.

The event featured remote speakers with expertise in various aspects of higher education. The participants crafted messages in breakout sessions that will be used by the board of trustees and administration to make decisions for the future of the college.

Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa called it a “transformation process” to make the college “unique and relevant” and “stand out in the minds of prospective students.”

“That’s what we’re doing here today. We’re going to invent the future of Northwest College,” said Hicswa.

Last fall, NWC held a series of listening sessions with students, faculty and the community, and the input it received from those helped the school develop its Vision 2025, which charts a course for the next five years. The course contained four directional points: champion student success, innovate academic programming, revitalize facilities, and attract new students. A series of public focus groups over the past several weeks sought input on where to go next with those four points.

“Where we go next will define our college and our community for years to come, and having these important conversations is a valuable first step,” Hicswa said, speaking after the summit.

A number of themes came out of these groups: experiential learning, rebranding the college, academic innovation and workforce responsiveness programming, flexible delivery of academic programs, and forming partnerships with businesses and industry.

While the summit followed the public focus groups, Hicswa said it was really the “kicking off point” for the planning college leaders will need to do.


Breakout sessions

During Thursday’s breakout sessions, participants were asked to develop impact statements to focus their ideas into a concise perspective. Working in groups, the participants were asked what they found most compelling from the speakers’ points and which would have the greatest impact on the future of NWC if addressed or left unaddressed. In the second part of the exercise, participants were asked to state the best way the institution could respond to the priorities identified.

Many of the groups’ impact statements followed similar themes as those from the preceding focus groups. Other ideas included the need to develop partnerships with high school counselors to improve enrollment rates at NWC and the need to reallocate unused scholarship monies to marketing efforts.

Another statement pointed out that what students want and what they need can be two different things. The group suggested that NWC could offer a regional adventure experience while still preparing students for transfer to universities or job skills.

A number of suggestions involved NWC establishing a better presence in the community. Especially with fewer events during the pandemic, there’s a sense that the campus is too isolated from the rest of Powell.



The speakers at the summit included Jim Owston, assistant provost for extended learning and professor of mass communication at Alderson Broaddus University in Philippi, West Virginia. Owston discussed institutional rebranding — something many focus group participants said is the right direction for NWC to go. He has researched institutional rebranding extensively, looking at the experiences of 154 institutions nationwide that have rebranded. Some of the cases turned out to be beneficial to the school, whereas some went wrong.

Owston said there are two top reasons institutions rebrand: to reflect the current status of the school (such as a two-year college becoming a four-year university) or to define its future mission.

He pointed out that 32 colleges in the U.S. today have “Northwest” or “Northwestern” in the name, including NWC.

“To be unique and relevant, sometimes you need to move away from the name that’s shared by so many other institutions,” Owston said, tying his discussion back to what Hicswa said NWC was trying to do with its strategic vision.

Owston recounted some examples of rebranding that didn’t work out, such as one institution that alienated a lot of its alumni by changing the name. The story illustrated the need to include stakeholders in the process of rebranding, which are members of the community, college alumni and students.

Edward DesPlas, executive vice president of San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, discussed changing trends in educational delivery, such as the shift to online learning. He also discussed a growing interest in non-degree programs, as people looking to get more education seek certificate and skills-training programs.

“This isn’t likely what you want to hear,” DesPlas said, “but this could point the way to a large market waiting to be served.”

DesPlas also spoke on the value of the soft skills students develop in liberal arts education, which include communication skills and interpersonal relations. These attributes, DesPlas said, are traditionally developed in a liberal arts curricula and NWC could include those skills in career programs to strengthen its workforce development outcomes.

Gary Daynes, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Barton’s College in Wilson, North Carolina, discussed how an institution would best build partnerships with industry. Rather than expecting large corporations — which are more likely to partner with universities — to partner with NWC for their workforce training needs, the school would perform better by specific partnerships with local industries.

Meanwhile, Coleen Falkernstern, research analyst for the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, based in Colorado, discussed Wyoming’s education demographics — where they currently are and where they need to be to reach the state goals for higher education attainment.


Next steps

At the conclusion of the summit, Hicswa thanked the participants for their input and stressed how welcomed it was. She encouraged everyone to continue the conversation over the coming weeks and communicate any new ideas or insights with college administrators. Hicswa said NWC will likely hold more focus groups and surveys to sharpen the focus of the ideas that have been developed through this process.

“This is a shared process, throughout,” she said. “We are going to make these decisions together.”