Affordability while maintaining quality

Your Community College

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Benjamin Franklin is credited with the old adage, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." People are always trying to add to that very short list of certainty and I'm no exception. With apologies to Mr. Franklin then, I suggest the list now read, "death, taxes and enrollment increases at North Idaho College."

Once again this fall, NIC is serving more students than ever before. Enrollment in our credit courses is at an all-time high of 6,751 students. This year's enrollment is 6.4 percent higher than fall of 2010. However, for the four-year period from the fall of 2007, it is a mind-blowing 45 percent increase.

The economic conditions are a key contributor driving students to enroll at North Idaho College. But I would argue that's not the only reason. In survey after survey, students have identified the most important reasons why they choose to attend community colleges: affordability, availability of classes and open access.

Affordability while maintaining quality is a hallmark of community colleges. The average annual tuition and fees for a full-time student at a community college is about 30 percent of the cost of a public four-year college or university and 11 percent of the cost at a private institution. During the current economic downturn, the affordability of NIC has remained a key attraction as our tuition and fee increases have been significantly less than those of the four-year institutions in Idaho.

However, availability of classes is being challenged by our rapid enrollment growth. This situation has been creeping up on us over several years, but has become a serious concern this fall. Over the past several years of double-digit enrollment growth, we have been adding classes, expanding the number of seats in almost all class sections, hiring more faculty and developing better ways to schedule classroom utilization. All of this was done in a "catch-up" mode as we struggled to increase class availability to match the rapidly rising enrollment. In a perfect world, anyone who is accepted at NIC would be able to fill their schedules with the classes they want and need. But unfortunately, there are a finite number of hours in a day that classes can be scheduled and each student has a different life situation that limits the time slots for them to take classes. Add in the very real dilemma that many classes that students need or want may be offered at the same time, and you can see the difficulty of ensuring that students can schedule the classes they need when they need them. And, despite the increased availability of what we refer to as eLearning - Internet courses, interactive video conferencing and hybrid courses - many students are unable to get the courses they need when they have time available to take them.

Accessibility recognizes that community colleges do not have exclusive admissions standards that require high results on admissions tests or that potential students must have a high grade point average in high school. Basically, anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent can enroll. But given the challenges facing availability outlined earlier, I think it is clear that we are reaching a point where our rapid enrollment growth has outpaced our ability to meet these ideals. We continue to admit students who apply, but they then have a great deal of difficulty finding a full schedule of classes. The consequences for new and continuing students include taking fewer classes than desired and extending the time necessary to complete their programs. I'm sure you've heard that "time is money." That rings particularly true for these students; adding time to their education certainly raises the cost of it.

In an effort to better manage growth and do our best to prime students to be as successful as possible in their pursuit of education and training, NIC instituted several new guidelines this semester. Those applying for fall semester needed to do so by a new application deadline, which would allow time for orientation, advising, registration and other services. The college also instituted a waitlist this year to more accurately track student demand for particular courses so that new sections could be added if necessary.

Like other community colleges across the nation, North Idaho College was founded on and continues to be committed to the ideals of affordability, accessibility and availability. While skyrocketing enrollment challenges all three right now, we will continue to find new and innovative ways to provide life-changing education and training to those who wish to attend. The economy is what is driving people to our doorstep, and it's the economy that will benefit on the other side, as educated, skilled workers go on to become members of our community and nation.

Priscilla Bell, Ph.D., is president of NIC. For comments email her at PresidentsColumn@NIC.EDU.

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