State of the College: Annual address highlights positives at NWC

Posted 8/22/19

Northwest College held its annual State of the College address on Monday, highlighting the institution’s achievements and upcoming challenges.

As is the trend across the country for many …

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State of the College: Annual address highlights positives at NWC

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Northwest College held its annual State of the College address on Monday, highlighting the institution’s achievements and upcoming challenges.

As is the trend across the country for many institutions, NWC is struggling with enrollment levels, which have been sliding downward for several years and will be down again this fall. The college had to slash its budget, which resulted in several layoffs over the summer.

But in her Monday remarks to college employees, NWC President Stefani Hicswa also highlighted some of the college’s successes in the past year. That included record-breaking completion rates: She noted the latest graduating cohorts at NWC had the highest completion rates in the college’s history.

The college’s retention rate from fall 2017 to fall 2018 is the highest among the state’s seven community colleges —  and NWC has bested the state’s average for eight of the last 10 years.

“Yeah, our enrollment is down,” Hicswa told employees in the audience, “but when it comes to retention and completion, you crushed it.”

The keynote speaker for the address was Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission. She also praised NWC’s completion rates — which also were the highest among the state’s seven community colleges and even higher than the University of Wyoming last year.

“It’s actually one of the top ones in the nation and that’s something to be proud of,” Caldwell told the NWC audience, which filled the Yellowstone Building’s conference room.

She explained completion rates are vital to measuring the impact a community college has, because “access without success is an empty promise.”

Caldwell displayed statistics of how many jobs today require college degrees. Since 2011, of 11.5 million jobs created, only 80,000 were for people with a high school diploma or less.

She also discussed education’s role in the state’s ENDOW initiative, which seeks to diversify Wyoming’s economy by bringing in new industries. The hope is to ease the state’s dependency on revenues from mineral

extraction, which are notoriously volatile. Part of attracting new industries is having a trained workforce available.

“Building blocks are important,” Caldwell said.

Hicswa said her vision for the college is one of a comprehensive institution, with a diversity of offerings that make it not just a trade school, but also not just a junior college. This way, she hopes the college will have more sustainability through enrollment and economic trends.

NWC leaders have responded to declining enrollment with a number of initiatives, including an aggressive, multi-pronged marketing campaign.

“I called for a full court press asking everyone to recruit new students,” Hicswa said.

The college is also pursuing a new student center. The current DeWitt Student Center is 50 years old, which is the design life of the building. Hicswa said the quality of facilities play a key role in attracting prospective students, and replacing the building is important to the “health and safety” of current students.

“Given our budget situation, I have been asked if this is the right time to construct a new building,” Hicswa said. “The answer is unquestionably yes.”

College leaders have said they want to pay for the roughly $20 million project with a mixture of funds, including an additional 1 cent sales tax and around $10 million from the state.

Some have questioned why the college would seek state funding for a building in the midst of layoffs. However, Hicswa reiterated Monday that state appropriations for new construction comes from a pool that all community colleges in the state compete for; the money cannot be used for maintenance of existing facilities, salaries or operating budgets.

“If we choose to forgo our share of state funds, those funds go to other institutions,” Hicswa explained.

At the start of her remarks, Caldwell explained why she is so passionate about community colleges and the role they play in higher education.

Caldwell grew up in southeast Oklahoma as a member of the Choctaw Nation. At 16, she was homeless and facing the prospect of getting pulled into the tribal foster care system.

“Let’s just say I wasn’t making the best decisions at the time,” Caldwell said.

She said she was fortunate to have “some good intervention,” which turned her towards a community college in Paris, Texas.

“From the moment I started those classes, my life changed forever,” she recalled.

Caldwell said community colleges are the access point for higher education, and higher education is the top predictor for economic and social mobility.

The state “needs you,” she told the NWC employees. “What you do is really critical to our success.”

Fall classes started Wednesday.

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