Northwestern Michigan College’s University Center: 20 Years Of Higher Ed

In an era of Face Time, Skype, streaming video, instant messaging and constant online access via smart phone, tablet or laptop, it’s hard to remember a time when communication – and access to educational resources – weren’t just a few keystrokes away.

Yet, during the early 1990s, “distance learning” was unknown and technology relied on dial-up connections. In the Grand Traverse region, there were few options for higher education beyond the associate degrees offered by Northwestern Michigan College. A handful of Michigan universities would host weekend classes or summer courses “up north,” but selections were limited and infrequent. Students often found themselves traveling several hours away or temporarily relocating to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees. Most disbanded educational plans entirely.

Enter NMC’s University Center, which opened its doors 20 years ago this summer on August 26, 1995, heralding a pathway to higher learning for northern Michigan residents. Three years in the planning, the new center was only the second such institution in the state. It featured what was then highly innovative instructional technology along with participation by twelve university partners offering more than 40 academic programs leading to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The first fall enrollment totaled 667 students, a number that has remained strong with approximately 750-900 students each year. Enrollment peaked in 2008 when an estimated 1,098 students took coursework at the University Center.

Today, students can enroll in 40 different certification and degree programs offered by the University Center’s eight current partners – Central Michigan University, Davenport University, Eastern Michigan University, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University, Spring Arbor University and Western Michigan University.

Marguerite Cotto, NMC vice president, lifelong and professional learning, said opportunity is the greatest benefit the University Center has provided throughout its history.

“Whether you use it or not, having the University Center meant that people could grow in their careers or start new careers … it created an interesting milestone in growing a community,” Cotto said. “A community with the resources to fuel opportunity has far greater ability to support innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development.”

Those involved in the early days credit community support, timing and vision to longevity and success.

“As I reflect on that experience 20 years ago, my fondest memory is of the support received for the project from a broad spectrum of people and gifts ranging from an elementary class having a bake sale to personal gifts from first time donors in the six figures,” said Leelanau County administrator and former NMC outreach director Chet Janik. “The message was simple, the Grand Traverse region was the furthest removed community from four-year bachelor degree opportunities in the state.”


“In 1990, NMC had a failed millage election which prompted us to ask community members what NMC could do better to serve our taxpayers,” said former NMC President Tim Quinn. “The overwhelming response was to provide more four-year advanced degrees to the community. It was also about the same time that a new instructional technology was coming on the market – two-way interactive audio and video classrooms, a forerunner to video streaming and today’s (online) distance learning programs … we put our heads together and came up with a plan to create a university center which would incorporate new technology.”

At that time, the average age of the student body was 28 years, 60 percent were women and a third of those were single moms, sometimes working two or three jobs, added Quinn. “They did not have the luxury of picking up their family and their support systems and going off to a four-year school.  Nor could they manage the 90-mile one-way drive several times a week to take classes at the nearest university.  Our community understood that and responded with unprecedented generosity.”

Quinn noted early plans projected $6 million would be needed for technology, renovations and construction on what is now the University Center building on the Boardman campus and the Beckett Building on NMC’s main campus. Longtime supporters Jim Beckett and Art Schmuckal co-chaired what was to be an 18-month capital campaign. Within just six months, $8.6 million was raised from the five-county region.

“All of us who worked to create the University Center were inspired because we knew we were creating life-changing opportunities for people in our region,” said Kathleen Guy, fundraising consultant/founder of the Eaton Cummings Group and retired NMC vice president of development. “It was a new concept and NMC was among the first to take on the challenge. Once we began asking donors to invest, their reactions exceeded our expectations.”

Judy Nemitz, Traverse City program administrator for longtime partner Central Michigan University, said faculty understood the need first hand.

“The area was ready … to bring advanced degrees to the region, and the University Center was the perfect arrangement due to the distance of the four-year institutions,” Nemitz said, noting that local faculty Drs. Lorraine Berak and Karen Edwards traveled to earn their Ph.D.’s while also working and raising children prior to the University Center opening.

“The University Center is built on the premise that the partner schools will not offer the same programs and, therefore, not compete for students,” explained Nemitz. “Putting the students first makes it all work between us.”

Vice President Cotto recalled one past University Center student who was exceptionally grateful for the opportunity to finish her education while keeping her job.

“I came into my office and a woman handed me a check … she said she had just finished her degree and, as promised, her boss had given her a raise. She asked if I could give the check to the college because she wanted to donate the balance (between old and new salaries) to NMC for starting the University Center.

“If I ever have to remember what our work is about, I think about that story,” Cotto said.


Cotto sees the University Center entering its next generation of innovation and programming as partners respond to market forces and current community needs.

“In the beginning we asked, ‘What could a university deliver at a distance?’ Cotto said. “It was the first generation of University Centers … and an idea that was very dependent on technology.”

Now, that technology is taking a backseat.

“Today, the technology has leaped forward so quickly to seem almost invisible … and we see more focused strategic delivery and new generations of programming coming with far better market research,” she said, noting the current eight partners look at the landscape of the community to identify professional development needs and opportunities for new programming as well as modifications to existing ones.

Two recent examples include Grand Valley University bringing its physician assistant program to Traverse City, made possible by federal grant funding which allowed costly programming to be offered off-campus in an under-served area that was also a regional hub for health care.

In a completely different discipline, Spring Arbor partnered with NMC’s engineering department (offering associate’s degrees) and regional manufacturers to offer a bachelor’s degree in facilities management and provide the complex and sophisticated training needed as area manufacturers vie for global contracts, military procurement and related opportunities.

Cotto noted both matched academic resources and regional needs with collaborative planning and programming.

“It’s quite remarkable from the small laboratory of the University Center how higher education conducts itself … in a very collaborative, collegial and supportive environment,” Cotto said – committed to providing residents with continuing professional degrees that are time efficient, high quality and keep students home, while also honoring the investment the community made 20 years ago.

“It was a great idea at the right time,” she said. “It was so right that, 20 years later, it still feels fresh.”