NMCC growth curbed by budget constraints

Posted Sept. 29, 2010, at 8:22 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:50 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Some of the most popular programs at Northern Maine Community College, including nursing and wind power technology, also are the most expensive to teach.

The financial factor doesn’t affect their attractiveness, but it does affect how many students the college can admit to the programs.

Officials at the Presque Isle college said earlier this week that budget constraints and subsequent planned reductions at NMCC are affecting the number of students the institution can serve at a time when demand is high following a period of record enrollment.

The college saw an 18 percent increase in enrollment last fall when the student body topped 1,100, according to the college. Tim Crowley, the president of NMCC, said such numbers have not been seen since the mid-1990s, around the time of the closure of Loring Air Force Base. At the same time, the cumulative two-year growth in student head count at NMCC is projected at nearly 13 percent.

“At this point, we don’t have enough money to handle the demand,” William Egeler, NMCC dean of students, said Monday. “We are seeing record enrollment, which has stretched us pretty thin. We have had to make some changes to deal with the situation.”

Those changes, which took place during the 2009-10 campus year and remain in place this year, affected enrollment this year, according to NMCC officials.

The campus instituted a planned reduction in the number of students admitted into the incoming class of both the associate degree nursing program and the wind power technology program.

“We have been very strict, in particular, with those two programs,” Egeler said. “We have had to turn a number of students away or help them figure out other options in terms of courses to take until a spot opens up.”

Last fall, the college welcomed 36 students into its inaugural class of the popular wind power technology program. This fall, however, budget constraints forced college officials to limit the number of students entering to 18.

The first of its kind in New England, the associate degree program has attracted more than 60 qualified applicants from throughout the state each of the past two years.

The associate degree nursing program is run out of the Presque Isle campus, in concert with distant sites in southern Aroostook and the St. John Valley. According to NMCC statistics, the college saw the number of student slots at its off-campus center in Houlton decrease from the 16 who graduated in May to the eight accepted at that site this fall.

“We are required to have one instructor for every eight students in the nursing program,” Egeler explained. “We cannot have more without hiring an additional instructor, which we do not have the money to do right now. That limits us.”

Egeler said the college received five applications for every spot available in the nursing program this year.

Along with instructors, the college must pay for medical equipment and supplies for the nursing program, as well as technology, classroom and lab space and a variety of equipment and other materials for both programs.

“They are very expensive programs to run,” he said.

Preliminary figures taken 14 days after the start of the semester show a slight decrease in enrollment from this year to last, according to college officials, but they expect student numbers will be relatively flat compared to last year when a final head count is taken Oct. 15.

NMCC’s enrollment, which includes students taking courses for dual credit at area high schools and regional technology centers, sees a boost in early to mid-October after the potato harvest recess when the secondary schools resume and submit their numbers.

“Despite these planned programmatic reductions we made due to limited resources, we have essentially maintained about the same number of students,” Egeler said. “Moreover, our current figures in terms of the number of the total credit hours students are taking altogether is up 1 percent compared to the final count on Oct. 15 of last year, and that excludes the dual credit numbers that are yet to come. There is also clear indication of the high interest in the college and our programs. We received a record number of applications for admission to the college for the entering class of 2010. That is a more than double-digit increase over the previous year.”

“We are very thankful for the appropriation [for education] that we do get,” he said. “But if there were more money, we could accommodate more students. We’d love to just open the doors and take all of the students that we can, but we can’t do that.”

NMCC’s enrollment gains in recent years are credited to a combination of growth in both the traditional college-age student population and the non-traditional age group, including many displaced workers turning to the institution for re-training. Part of the college’s growth in enrollment in fall 2009 was attributed to a special semester introduced in March of the previous academic year to accommodate more than 40 laid-off employees from the forest products industry in the region.

The college has been successful in attracting better than one of every eight Aroostook County high school graduates over the past several years.

Egeler said NMCC officials have addressed, and will continue to address, the issue at the state level. In the meantime, they are trying their best to “work with what we have.”

“We do not turn all of the students away just because there is not space in the particular program they want,” he said. “Some are admitted and we work with them to help them take the core courses that are required as part of their degree until they can be admitted into the program. Others we have to turn away, and they apply again at a later date.”

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