15% enrollment jump stretching NMCC thin

Posted Jan. 23, 2010, at 12:38 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Although a 15 percent jump in enrollment at Northern Maine Community College encouraged school officials this month, concern lingers about the impact on the institution, surrounding region and students.

NMCC President Tim Crowley said Friday that he and others at the Presque Isle college are concerned about how NMCC will serve more students with dwindling resources.

On Jan. 11, the campus welcomed what official numbers will show to be a 15 percent increase over last January and could be among the largest student enrollment numbers for the second half of an academic year since the mid-1990s.

NMCC officials believe the turbulent economy has brought more students to college, as many who are out of work decide to get training to seek new jobs. Crowley said that the college is a crucial resource to the area’s economy during challenging times.

But he worries that NMCC might be teetering on the brink of being overextended.

“We have really stretched this campus community thin in terms of the numbers of students we are serving,” he said, adding that several administrative and staff positions have not been filled due to fiscal concerns. “We have already started to look at capacity in some of our programs, and I think we may need to make adjustments to our programs.”

Crowley said that many faculty members are teaching classes whose enrollment caps have been increased. In some areas, he added, “multiple sections of courses have been added to accommodate the demand for what we are doing.”

The president said the additional duties have put more pressure on faculty and staff.

The growth in student numbers has been across the board. In recent years, NMCC has attracted one of every eight Aroostook County high school graduating seniors. Enrollment statistics also show a significant increase in the number of students who begin college at NMCC and then transfer on to a baccalaureate degree granting institution.

The college also has seen a big increase in the number of nontraditional students who turn to the institution to train for a new career. In March 2009, after a large number of area residents were laid off from lumber mills, NMCC started a special semester to accommodate those affected by the economic downturn.

“The more than 40 students who took advantage of this special semester continue to persist in their goal of earning a degree, and are nearly halfway through their academic studies,” said Crowley. “These individuals, many of whom have young families, are critical to the future of Aroostook. We, as a County community, cannot afford to let them become an unfortunate outmigration statistic.”

Another challenge NMCC is already experiencing — and that Crowley sees as worsening in the near future — is the college’s ability to meet student demand in certain programs as state funding for higher education decreases. The college’s nursing program has long had a waiting list, and nearly all of the trade and technical occupation offerings are at or near capacity.

NMCC officials say applications for fall 2010 enrollment are well ahead of similar numbers last year at this time. NMCC already has reduced the number of students it had planned to accept in next fall’s incoming class for its popular wind power technology program from 36 to 18. The first-of-its-kind program in New England has attracted qualified applicants from all over the state and out of state.

Crowley said Friday that one of his biggest fears, as he looks at the college’s resources being stretched tightly, is that the quality of education could be in jeopardy. He said he does not anticipate the college will see an increase in state funding anytime soon.

“I think that we all have to make do with what we have,” he said. “We have had a great deal of support from the business community and other organizations, who have donated money and equipment to NMCC to support student scholarships and other needs.”

At this point, Crowley cannot say if this semester’s enrollment is the highest the college has ever seen.

“I do know that this spring semester we are very close to record enrollment,” he acknowledged. “Last fall, we saw record enrollment.”

Right now, Crowley said, the college is looking at “every avenue” to ensure it can provide every student with a high quality education.

The cuts in the wind power program were just one step, he said.

“We might look at cutting the number of students we accept in other programs as well,” he said Friday.

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