Since the close of the second World War, Northwest College has been a staple of education in northwestern Wyoming.
More than 23,000 people belong to the alumni association, and many who started at Northwest went on to attain higher education at four-year universities around the country.
But now, NWC is facing difficult times. Years of declining enrollment have hurt the school, and the new combination of a pandemic that is keeping many potential students at home and a decline in tax revenue from Wyoming’s mineral wealth has school districts and universities alike scrambling to find ways to stay open.
To that end, the College held a series of events at the end of summer to get community input on its direction, and the board of trustees voted to move forward with five broad areas of change that include rebranding and academic redesign.
Northwest must cut $2.9 million by the 2021-22 fiscal year, a change that will be looked at holistically and something that can’t be achieved by selling assets or fundraising, NWC spokesperson Carey Miller said. “It is still somewhat of a moving target because we don’t know exactly what some of those appropriations will end up being, but $2.9 million is the current estimate. This would not be a one-time cut; it will be ongoing.”
In the midst of all this, college president Stefani Hicswa, who has helmed the school since 2013, has accepted the chancellorship at Montana State University-Billings. She leaves the school on Nov. 11.
To cap it off, the board of trustees could see up to three new faces on the seven-person body after the election.
Time of change
The College took the first steps in the process of reinventing itself at the end of summer, soliciting community input through focus groups and forums, culminating in a half-day event called the “Future Summit,” which brought together stakeholders and speakers to formalize suggestions for the board to act on.
The series of “Future” events in August and September comprised the first phase of the process to determine where the school will go. There were five main areas that the groups came up with as areas to make possible changes:
• Renaming and rebranding
• Redesigning academic programs to be more flexible
• Building partnerships that support the region’s workforce needs
• Building opportunities for students to apply their learning in the real world
• Enhancing the awareness and visibility of NWC’s current offerings
A committee composed of NWC faculty and staff is currently working on turning the suggestions into specific strategies and actions that they will present to the board at a later date.
The board, for its part, voted to move ahead with the strategic realignment of the school, a process that will call for more community input and is planned to wrap in the spring of 2021, around the same time the finalized budget is due.
Some of these proposed changes are not new to the school. NWC has been renamed twice, starting in 1946 as the University of Wyoming Northwest Center before becoming Northwest Community College in 1953, and eventually settling on Northwest College in 1989.
Even the dire financial situation is not unheard of. The school started with heavy funding from UW and after that well ran dry in 1950, it had to find a new way to continue. NWC grew rapidly after the name change in 1953, aided by a change in state law that allowed it to levy taxes in the area.
In 1967, the school again found itself in a challenging financial situation. Its reputation was marred because of an accreditation problem thanks to a board ruling on political activity by the faculty and it was in need of a larger tax base. The college was able to weather the storm and continue on.
In June of 1989, input from the students and alumni prompted the Board of Trustees to drop “Community” from the name – at least for marketing materials.
The following September, enrollment topped 1,000 students for the first time, though this is a case of correlation, not necessarily causation.
Enrollment rose for the next 20 years, peaking in 2009 at 2,198 students. The numbers started to decline after that, dropping more than 10% by the time Hicswa took the reins.
Under her leadership, the student population dropped another 26% from the 2013-2014 school year to the 2019-2020 year.
Preliminary data from Northwest shows enrollment dropping even further in the 2020-21 school year, with just 1,377 students enrolled as of Sept. 19. It’s the lowest enrollment the school has had in 25 years.
Reasons for decline
Northwest cites a few reasons why its numbers are down. The completion rate (a measure of students graduating or transferring to a four-year institution) is the highest it’s ever been at the school under Hicswa, rising to 59% in 2016, meaning students spend less time in school.
It also cites students choosing other options after high school instead of heading to college, a low regional unemployment rate and the coronavirus pandemic as reasons why people are choosing not to attend.
Those combined factors have dropped college enrollment in the last decade after the numbers received a large boost during the Great Recession.
To help try to restore some enrollment in the future, Gov. Mark Gordon has tried to assist with that effort, funneling CARES Act funds into the higher education system in Wyoming to entice more people to enroll with grants and scholarships.
Without further clarity on what exactly will be cut from the budget and to what degree, it is difficult to enhance the awareness of what the school has to offer, because what it offers could be dramatically different next year.
NWC has already reduced its staffing by 23% since 2013, and the types of changes that came out of the “Future” events could require more faculty and staff, not less. Personnel are the biggest expense for the college, making up nearly three-fourths of the budget.
Counteracting the shortfall through a tuition hike is also out of the question, as Northwest must adhere to the statewide tuition rate set by the Wyoming Community College Commission.
Rebranding and renaming the school are tied with enhancing awareness of its offerings. Renaming Northwest to something like “Yellowstone College” would bring “instant global recognition” to the school, Miller said, but that would also be paired with curriculum offerings on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for each program area and require updating marketing and recruiting materials.
“To be clear, this is just one option we’re considering, and even the name ‘Yellowstone College’ is just an example,” Miller said, noting that any step taken by the board would first be studied closely for feasibility.
Northwest is not the only Wyoming community college that is feeling the strain. Gillette and Sheridan colleges both cut their athletics programs almost entirely in June, which the Casper Star-Tribune reports will save the Northwest Community College District $2.8 million. Similar cuts could save the Powell-based school around $1.3 million each year.
For their part, the local school districts rely on NWC to provide an opportunity for their students to get a more advanced education and prepare them for higher learning. Last year, the college had 308 concurrent or dual-credit enrollees, or students taking college courses that benefit them both in high school and in their post-secondary education, nearly a quarter of the school’s population. Improving those offerings has been a topic of discussion among the candidates for the board of trustees.
Part of that change could be an increased volume in trade programs, something NWC trustee Bob Newsome and many Cody School Board candidates have suggested in the past. Bringing in qualified people to teach those courses could be a challenge, however.
“It’s not that difficult to take a shop facility and turn it into an instructional facility. It’s relatively straightforward and not overly expensive,” Newsome said in an interview earlier this month. “Trying to find staff and instructors is becoming a problem … If they’re already working in it and have those skill sets, an awful lot of them don’t want to quit doing what they’re doing to go to teaching.”
Newsome said there is enough work in the area for local tradespeople that they would likely take a pay cut if they went to teach at the college.
The effort NWC is trying to make to change itself in order to survive in the future is part of an ongoing overhaul in higher education across the nation.
“The college’s transformation strategy is intended to be big and bold and take us five, 10, 20 years into the future – the strategic options we’re developing now are not short-term,” Miller said. “Higher education itself needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and transform itself to better meet the needs of today’s students. This transformation project is Northwest College taking a long, hard look in the mirror.”