State of NCCC: Prison programs, frozen tuition and a heroic alum

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Hodson Hall, which houses North Country Community College’s administration and several classrooms, in Saranac Lake. Photo: Chris Morris via Adirondack Daily Enterprise

By Aaron Marbone, Adirondack Daily Enterprise

With the semester’s classes ending on Thursday, Dec. 8, North Country Community College officials continue to rebound from the COVID pandemic. In an exclusive interview with the Enterprise, four senior administrators talked about enrollment, tuition, expanded programs and how they define success for the college as they prepare for the spring semester.

NCCC enrollment of core students was down this fall; however, student numbers were up in the high school dual enrollment and prison education programs, making for a slightly higher total number of students than this time last year.

NCCC has 638 core students this semester, according to NCCC data. A year ago, there were 676 core students.

This year, there were 194 first-time students, 270 continuing students, 81 re-admitted students and 93 transfer students.

NCCC Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment Kyle Johnston said the enrollment decline at NCCC has been happening for a while. Last year, the “tide started to turn” and it is beginning to plateau.

Enrollment is down for colleges nationwide. A study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed a 7.8% drop in enrollment at public two-year colleges in the U.S. for the 2022 spring semester, compared to the 2021 spring semester.

“There’s no single factor. If there were, it would be really easy to address,” NCCC President Joe Keegan said.

Lower enrollment numbers mean less revenue for the college. Communications Director Chris Knight said the college has a “healthy fund balance” to cover the gap.

“At the start of the 22-23 academic year, our fund balance was just under $6.2 (million),” Knight wrote in an email.

Johnston said NCCC enrollment is “rebounding” from the pandemic, noting that the application volume is up this year for the first time in a while. So far, there are 65 more applications for the 2023 spring semester than there were for the 2022 spring semester.

Johnston said the majority of NCCC students come from Saranac Lake, Ticonderoga, Malone and Akwesasne, where its campuses are based.

The number of out-of-state students dropped dramatically during the pandemic, Johnston said, but has made a bit of a “comeback.” There are 50 students from out of state now, with 15 international students. Typically there are between 50 and 75 out-of-state students, he said.

The athletics teams on the Saranac Lake campus are the major draw for out-of-state and international students, he added.

Unique programs bolster enrollment

Colleges that have done well during the enrollment decline have been diversifying and becoming more comprehensive to reach more populations, according to Johnston, and that’s what NCCC has done with its high school and prison programs. Knight said strong enrollment numbers in these programs help keep the college’s revenue flat.

The total NCCC enrollment with these programs this fall was 1,636. Last year it was 1,619.

The college has a “bridge program” for high school students to take college courses through dual enrollment. There are around 887 students enrolled in the program this fall.

The college’s Second Chance Pell program allows inmates at local prisons to take courses taught by NCCC faculty. The program allows someone with a felony conviction the chance to be hired when they are released. It is for people who are going to be released soon, with the goal of giving them a successful return to society.

Keegan said this program has been going on for five years and is “well-used,” with around 111 participants currently. When it started, NCCC was the only SUNY community college that participated.

“It’s really an incredible program. To see these gentlemen, their lives transformed,” Keegan said.

The program includes an entrepreneurship management track for former inmates to develop small businesses; a liberal arts transfer track to act as a jumping board to a four-year humanities or social science degree; and a human services track to work in peer counseling jobs when they get out.

The program is for both state and federal prisons — Adirondack Correctional, Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook, Bare Hill Correctional and Franklin Correctional.

Tuition freezes

Johnston said the economy plays a role in enrollment. Following economic trends, enrollment has been declining since the Great Recession of 2008. When people are living paycheck to paycheck, they can’t think about attending college, he said.

“One thing I think higher ed in general has had to do a better job of is just affordability,” Johnston said. “I think we were ahead of the curve on that. … We’re still on the same cost structure as pre-pandemic.”

For the past three years, NCCC has frozen its tuition fees, so students are still paying 2019 rates. That freeze was just approved for another year.

Johnston said it is hard to gauge if tuition freezes have been successful at bringing in students, but it has kept tuition more affordable, which he is sure helps. He sees other colleges freezing their tuition, too, even though the costs to run a college are higher than ever.

Knight added that NCCC was always an affordable college option for people with lower incomes to get into the workforce or prepare for a four-year institution. The college tries to absorb the costs as a college and not put them on the students, he said.

Johnston said the college is always working with its foundation, seeking grants to “soften that cost” for students. For the past few years, the NCCC Foundation put $100,000 into scholarship funds for students in Franklin and Essex counties.

Johnston points to the college’s low default rates on student loans. He said if federal and state grants and scholarships don’t cover all the college costs, students take out loans. When they don’t make payments on these loans, they default.

In 2019, the most current year the college has data for, 6.6% of students with loans defaulted, a “drastic drop,” Johnston said.

Prior to that, default rates were at 15.6% in 2018, 15.1% in 2017 and 19.2% in 2016.

Johnston said NCCC went from the higher end of the default rate scale to the lower end in the past three years. Knight said the biggest reason for the lower rates is enforcement of “Exit Counseling,” which he said helps prepare students for their eventual repayment.

Knight said NCCC will have data on the amount of debt students take out to attend NCCC available in the summer.

County collaborations

Knight said NCCC relies on county contributions, this year totaling $3.3 million. In July, Keegan told the Franklin County Board of Legislators that Essex and Franklin counties make up 23% of the college’s budget for student education, according to the Malone Telegram. The rest of the funding comes from students, 40%; the state, 29%; and the NCCC Foundation or other income, 8%.

Keegan said NCCC tries to align its programming with regional needs, to create paths for in-demand jobs.

Vice President of Academic Affairs Sarah Maroun said advisory boards for each program get input annually on what the region needs. She said NCCC has added a health care administration track to its business program. Skills in the business side of health care are needed here, she said.

The college’s computer graphic advisory board said there is a need for varied skills for small-business entrepreneurs. NCCC combined art, design and business courses in a one-year certificate so students could learn them simultaneously.

Instead of hiring one person to do business analytics and another for design, she said it is better to get one person who can do them both.

Maroun said NCCC partnered with other SUNY community colleges to get a grant from the state Department of Labor for “strengthening community colleges,” focused on health care. She said this helps fund multiple EMT classes each semester, as well as courses in human services, nursing, surgical tech and lab tech.

She said the college is working with the Child Care Coordinating Council of Clinton County to create a path to get child care credentials with non-credit trainings.

Last spring the college pitched a “grow your own initiative” to the counties to help county staff “upskill” while working at the county to get them qualified for new jobs in the county, get promotions and maintain positions.

Knight said counties have been asked to contribute toward upgrades on campuses, particularly Saranac Lake. The counties have financial constraints, and it’s always been a challenge, but he said NCCC was fortunate to get grant funding in the past year to upgrade nursing and science labs on several campuses.

“It’s probably going to be the single biggest investment we’ve had in a few decades in terms of facilities,” Knight said.

This money comes from different sources, including two state grants from Dormitory Authority of the State of New York for science labs and $1 million from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration for nursing labs on all three campuses.

Maroun said the nursing lab simulation equipment helps students do next-to-real-world training, allowing them to simulate all sorts of clinical situations on mannequins. These labs are expected to open next fall.

NCCC got $7 million from the federal CARES Act in 2020 for coronavirus relief. Of this, $3 million was earmarked for students in the form of direct aid. Keegan also said the college used money to fund a laptop loaner program. Many did not have the tech needed to attend classes virtually at the start of the pandemic, he said, so the college supplied around 200 laptops, as well as webcams and WiFi hotspots.

The college mailed these out, or its IT staff delivered them.

Maroun said some of the money was put into an emergency fund for students to get grocery cards or pay for gas. She said this helped the college hold onto students who couldn’t continue their education otherwise.

The rest of the $4 million was used by the college to update its classrooms to support remote synchronous learning during the pandemic and into the future, upgrade HVAC systems at the Malone and Saranac Lake campuses, and make up some of the lost revenue during COVID.

What is success?

NCCC officials were asked what success for the college means to them and if they believe the college is achieving that.

“Are there things we can do better? Sure,” Keegan said.

But he said the college recently got an encouraging confirmation that it is being successful by its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

In March, MSCHE reaccredited the college. The college got a glowing report from the commission.

“There is a culture of caring at the college,” the report’s final statement reads. “Highly engaged campus where people seemed very upbeat and positive.”

The accreditor said NCCC is meeting the seven sets of standards it assesses colleges on. Most standards did not include recommendations for improvements from the commission. The only one that did, related to planning, resources and institutional improvement, recommended that the college provide more evidence of its own methods of evaluating its effectiveness.

Knight said that commencement is success — the smiles, cheering, emotion and goofy caps.

Keegan said the college has graduated around 50,000 graduates over its lifespan and they work all over the Adirondack region — at Adirondack Health, in local law enforcement, and most recently, Allison McGahay, a NCCC graduate, was elected to become a state supreme court justice.

Maroun said the students define their own success. That may be two years of study and moving on to the workforce or another degree, or just four courses specialized in a specific area to get a better job.

Maroun recently read a news article about NCCC nursing graduate Jessica MacMillen, of Chestertown, saving the lives of two men on an Atlantic charter fishing boat trip. With her medical knowledge, and assistance and supplies from helpful anglers, MacMillen reversed an allergic reaction and what appeared to be a stroke-induced seizure. MacMillen was awarded for her quick actions by the American Legion Post 964 with a statewide Legion award.

To Maroun, this is the highest form of success the college can have.

NCCC’s spring semester will begin on Jan. 30, later than usual, because of the 2023 FISU Winter World University Games in Lake Placid.

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