At its monthly meeting Monday, the Northwest College Board of Trustees wrestled with how to respond to a disappointing fall enrollment update. The headcount going into the fall semester this year …
At its monthly meeting Monday, the Northwest College Board of Trustees wrestled with how to respond to a disappointing fall enrollment update. The headcount going into the fall semester this year shows a 7 percent drop in enrollment over last year’s headcount.
College President Stefani Hicswa said, while the figures show a decline, they’re an improvement over last year, when fall enrollment dropped 10 percent from 2017. Despite a smaller decline, the figures are not where the college leadership wants them to be.
“This is a bad trajectory to be on,” said Board President Dusty Spomer.
Trustee Bob Newsome said the figures show that past efforts are not producing results.
“It just seems like, how much lower can we go?” he said.
Hicswa cited low unemployment — now at 50-year lows — as a central cause of the problem. Many college institutions across the country are seeing their enrollment numbers decline.
Meanwhile, trustee John Housel said a greater effort, perhaps in coordination with other community colleges in the state, is needed to campaign in competition with the University of Wyoming. Housel said NWC leaders need to talk to legislators, saying UW is getting a lot of financial support for its advertising campaigns while community colleges must compete with fewer resources.
“I think this is a case of unfair competition,” he said.
Housel said NWC has a lot to offer in terms of affordability, smaller class sizes, lower student to teacher ratios, and better residency offerings, but playing on these strengths is hard, as the state has gone “overboard” in its support of UW’s advertising.
“The University of Wyoming can’t be this behemoth that’s going to consume our market,” Housel said.
Board Treasurer Luke Anderson said what draws the students down to Laramie is an experience the university has to offer.
Spomer stressed the need for a concerted effort by the trustees to “turn this thing around.”
“We can’t just be a report-receiving board,” he said. “How many more 7 percents can we handle?”
New center part of ‘vibrant’ college
One of the most ambitious initiatives the college is undertaking to improve the enrollment numbers is a proposed $20 million new student center. Half the funding for the project is expected to come from the State of Wyoming through the Legislature. The current plan calls for the other half to come from a combination of a specfic purpose 1 percent sales tax, private donations and student fees. The exact mixture of the local funding is uncertain at this time, Hicswa said — and the tax would need voter approval.
Hicswa said the college has a nearly $88 million economic impact on the region from college operations, alumni and student spending while being the fifth-largest employer in Park County. She’s hoping these facts will appeal to county voters so they approve the 1 percent tax.
“Powell needs a vibrant community college ... We are really impacting the entire Big Horn Basin,” Hicswa said.
The proposal was met with some criticism after being put forward last week. In June, NWC laid off eight people and cut another 21 positions; some community members have asked how the college can put $20 million toward a new facility after having to lay people off.
However, Hicswa explained the money the college is pursuing from the state comes from a capital-project fund that all colleges compete for through the Legislature. The money cannot be used for operating budgets.
“It’s different money,” she said. “We are not using money that could otherwise go to jobs or raises or anything else.”
Further, if NWC doesn’t get the appropriation, another college will. Hicswa noted that other colleges in the state have been building new facilities. With the exception of the Yellowstone Building, NWC has largely made do with the facilities it has. The current DeWitt Student Center, for example, is 50 years old.
On the state’s list of funding priorities, a new center currently ranks third-highest. No. 2 on the list is a new Visual and Performing Arts Building for NWC, but Hicswa said the college will postpone that project — effectively making the student center the second-highest priority for state funding.
To demonstrate how the new facility would improve enrollment figures, Hicswa pointed to a 2017 college lifestyle survey by Sedexo, a global facilities management and food service company. It found 83 percent of students place a higher value on a campus’ physical environment than the institution’s reputation.
Anderson said freshmen students are still trying to determine what career paths they want to take in life, so it makes sense that good facilities would appeal to them.
“There’s a good chunk of the student population that don’t know what they want to be when they grow up,” Anderson said.
He said the student center initiative was encouraging and agreed it was the right direction to go.
“Facilities help. They just do,” he said.
If built, the new student center would be completed in 2022. In the meantime, NWC is also pursuing other ways to get students to enroll.
Interim Vice President of Student Services Dee Havig presented to the board on recent advertising efforts.
One goal is to combat what’s called “the summer melt,” where students’ drive toward college begins to fade away during the summer after high school; a large portion of college-bound students don’t enroll.
Havig said staff at NWC are calling the “extensive” list of students who were accepted to the college but still haven’t registered. On the calls, staffers discuss why students haven’t signed up and address any concerns or questions they may have. Heads of academic departments are also sending out letters in hopes of encouraging students to register for classes.
Hicswa said she thought some of the calling may need to be automated in order to reach a large number of people.
To illustrate the value of this kind of advertising, she told the story of one local parent whose daughter was taking online classes through the University of Phoenix. Hicswa said the for-profit university is much more expensive than NWC, but it competes with the college and uses automated calls to help do that.
“The general public don’t know how affordable we are” relative other colleges, Hicswa told the board.
Trustee Mark Wurzel suggested the college needs to tap into its reserve funds to pay for some of these campaigns.
“You can’t throw money at everything, but some of the things we’re talking about, a little money could help it along,” he said.
Spomer said the effort to improve enrollment at the college should include the community. Stopping people in grocery stores to ask where their kids are going to college can help pull more students in, he said.
The college is also recruiting from outside the region. Amanda Enriquez, intercultural program manager, said they’re pursuing international campaigns to sell the “traditional West” aspect of NWC, with its outdoor opportunities. That really appeals to international students, she said.
Just like the other advertising efforts and the new student center, the campaign to recruit internationally could take awhile to show results.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Enriquez said, “but it takes some time to build those partnerships.”