An Anthem for Community Colleges: Underappreciated, world-class college is right in our backyard

Without fail, the first day of every school year began at 5 a.m. with my dad opening the bedroom door, clearing his throat and singing a robust chorus of “School days, school days, good old golden rule days … ” What he lacked in actual vocal talent he made up for with volume and enthusiasm. This tradition carried on every year until I completed high school and college.

After high school and his military service, my dad attended a vocational training school and earned a certificate in mechanical engineering. He was proud that he was able to afford to help send his children to a “traditional” college for their education. He believed that this path would be better than the one available to him.

It was a time when our parents, teachers and friends promised that if we went to college we would get a better job, a higher paying job, a more rewarding job. Was that really the purpose of education? To get a job?

Well, if it was, I failed miserably. I did attend a “traditional” college – Michigan State University – and I had a great time. I went to football games, parties, Dooley’s, most of my classes, and I made friends. Lots of them. I worked on campus in the cafeteria, took summer classes, worked on a cleaning crew and became a resident assistant.

With little guidance or thought, I changed my major. Four years later I was a proud Spartan alum. I had confidence! I had MSU logo gear! I had a degree! And … I had debt. What I didn’t have was a job. Do you know what job a B.A. in Psychology from a Big Ten university qualifies you for? I began waiting tables at Bennigan’s restaurant.

As a society, we claim to value education. We can debate whether our policies, priorities, choices and behaviors truly back up that claim.

I believe Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) President Tim Nelson clearly defines the role of education when he said, “Our ultimate purpose is to provide our learners and communities with the skills, experiences and values that will help them to create social and economic wealth during their lifetimes.”

And that is exactly what NMC does.

Community colleges are one of the most underrated and under-appreciated assets within a region.
They are accessible at any age, at a lower cost for real time learning and skill enhancement with or without the need or desire for degree completion.

We are fortunate that in 1951 Les Biederman, Glen Loomis, Preston Tanis, Harry Running and the Chamber of Commerce leadership were tenacious in ensuring that the Michigan legislature change the population requirements and allow Traverse City to establish NMC.

Let’s review some NMC stats:

• $54 million enterprise with a $40 million foundation

• Five campuses with approximately 700 employees

• Approximately 5,100 unique credited students annually

• Thirty-seven percent full-time students/63 percent part-time

• In 2017, the average student age was 21

• NMC awarded 944 degrees or certificates in the 2015/16 academic year

• In 2015/16, NMC Foundation awarded $888,463 in scholarships to 792 students

• In 2016, 497 local high school students were dual enrolled or in early college programs

• Eighty-five percent of graduates employed in their field of study stay in Michigan

• Top 5 “Best for Vets” nationwide

• Eleventh out of 50 “Best Choice Schools for Culinary” nationwide

• First community college baccalaureate in Michigan

• Only Association of Diving Contractors International-certified remotely operated underwater vehicle pilot technician training program in the world

Our leadership in Lansing has acknowledged the importance of community colleges by authorizing $7 million for NMC’s 21st Century Innovation Center. This funding, paired with the world-class faculty, staff and visionary leadership, will prepare our learners to not just get a degree or a better job. They will be prepared to build a rewarding life.

Bonnie Alfonso serves as the chair of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and on the Legislative Action Committee of the Small Business Association of Michigan. She can still sing a robust chorus of the Bennigan’s birthday song. What she lacks in actual vocal talent, she makes up for with volume and enthusiasm.