A year and a half into his role as president of Northeastern Junior College, Mike White knows there are challenges to overcome but he is very optimistic about the future of the college.
White, who came on board in January 2022 and just completed his first full fall-to-spring academic year at Northeastern, recently sat down with the Journal-Advocate to talk about his impressions of the college, goals for the future and the exciting things happening on campus.
So far in his time on campus, he has been struck by two things, the first being the dedication of the faculty and staff.
“You read about small colleges having close relationships with students and it’s truly demonstrated here. The faculty and staff are really dedicated to the values, the health and well-being of the students and mostly their education. We want our graduates to represent the college but truly be successful in everything and anything they choose to do,” White said.
He has also been impressed by the way the community embraces the college, both through the generosity of hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and in the support of programs. For example, partnerships with Sterling Fire Department to use their live trainers and the Logan County Fairgrounds for the college’s equine programs, just to name a couple.
“The community truly makes this college special for us and our students,” White said.
Of course, like other colleges Northeastern does have challenges, the biggest one being declining enrollment. Since 2017, NJC has seen enrollment drop roughly 20%, going from about 900 full-time students back then to 700 today.
There is some good news though, while there hasn’t been an increase, right now enrollment for the fall 2023 semester is trending flat from last year, an improvement over the 6% decline that occurred last fall from the previous year. According to White, as of Tuesday morning enrollment was up 6% from last year, but he explained that number will continue to teeter-totter until school starts on Aug. 21 and so far the trend has leaned to a level enrollment.
“I read often about people correctly trying to judge the value of college, ‘what will this time invested and money invested do for me?’ and make the right choice for them. I believe as an open enrollment community college, we offer a great value to get an education that can lead to further education or right into employment,” White said, but acknowledged it is a commitment by a student and their family, both financially and time-wise.
“While the enrollment challenge is there and it’s going to be here long-term, I want to make sure people understand that we do, I believe, provide value and something that’s a benefit to them in the long run,” he shared.
Northeastern is doing things to try to boost enrollment including an upcoming spotlight on “The College Tour,” an Amazon Prime show. When NJC found out that the program was coming to Colorado and had some interest in rural colleges, they let wasted no time letting them know Northeastern was interested.
“We were very fortunate to be one of the first community colleges selected,” White said.
“The College Tour” is a 30-minute program that highlights aspects of a different college every week. It consists of ten 2-3 minute segments, all done by students, who will speak about a variety of topics.
“Hopefully it will be great visibility for us and just inform others around the state and our neighboring states that we’re here and I think we have a lot to attract students with,” White said.
NJC recently announced that the casting call to participate in the show has been extended to July 23, to give more students and alumni a chance to audition. To apply scan the QR code and upload a two-minute audition video sharing your major and why you love NJC.
Filming will happen for one week in mid-September but because it takes time to complete the editing process, the episode won’t be available for viewing until February. When the episode does premier, NJC plans to host a community watch party.
White is also hopeful that the Applied Technology Campus expansion project will boost enrollment. With two successful rounds of state funding, the facility is set to go out to bid in just a few weeks and could see a potential groundbreaking in September or October, if the contracting goes quickly. While the project has been scaled back a little bit from the original plans due to rising construction costs, White said “it’s still going to be such a huge asset to the community and the campus to look forward to.”
The project will allow Northeastern to double its welding program capacity, which is a field in great demand, and give them room to explore other programs to train electricians and HVAC technicians.
White also sees NJC’s partnership with four-year colleges as a way to attract students who want to stay in rural Colorado.
At this time Northeastern has partnered with CU Denver for The Partnership for Rural Education Program for early childhood and elementary degrees and is working with the University of Phoenix on guided pathways of courses students can take that will apply to a bachelor’s degree for that university. Plus, this fall NJC is hoping to finalize an agreement with Colorado State University on some ag programs, so students can stay in Sterling and still get a bachelor’s degree from CSU. Northeastern is also working with the Colorado Community College System in hopes of possibly providing some options for earning bachelor of applied science degrees.
Other initiatives White is excited about include a one-year accelerated business degree offered at Northeastern’s Yuma campus; the addition of an e-sports team to NJC’s competitive teams this fall; a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to fund a paramedic program starting this fall, a significant need in this area, as well as a bilingual certified nursing aid program; and a new commercial driver’s license certificate program starting mid-September or October, which a manager has just been hired for.
“If you see a big semi with a Northeastern banner on it you might give it some space, it’s probably a student,” White said.
Plus, NJC has partnered with Ignite Athletics for a performance team that will perform at halftime of basketball games and other events during the winter sports season. So far there are seven students signed up, and that’s just pre-registration before students arrive on campus.
“I think it’s going to bring some real fun to our games and hopefully attract people to come watch,” White said.
All these are just some of the ways NJC hopes to attract more students and stabilize enrollment, one of White’s goals for next year and in the long term so that Northeastern can plan for the future and make smart investments. His other goals include using his background in process improvement to find things that can be done to free up the faculty and staff to be able to innovate, teach and really improve their passion, and to continue to engage with the community.
“I’m energized,” said White, who can often be found at community events wearing a Northeastern shirt, something he feels is important because “I value the input I get when people chat with me, their ideas about what this college can do to support the young men and women, and non-traditional students in this area, and how to be a vibrant part of the community.”
Asked about his long-term vision for Northeastern, White spoke about his belief that the atmosphere the college creates, the values it professes, the support it gives to its students and the activities the college provides them are really what makes students and their families comfortable that NJC is the right fit for them.
“My five-year vision is how do we continue to instill and make sure those are highly visible, so when somebody thinks about NJC and perhaps they visit, it’s clear to them that we’re the place they want to be,” White said.