Revisiting NCCC’s philosophy and purpose

North Country Community College's original faculty, 1968, Saranac Lake

As the college’s recently completed strategic plan launches it into the next 50 years as the public institution serving the Adirondack region, and as we celebrate the successes of the college over the last 50 years, we give pause to reflect back 49 years ago to the words of Dr. George Hodson Jr., the college’s first president.

On September 26, 1968, Dr. Hodson had a piece published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise titled “The Philosophy and Purpose of North Country Community College.” Dr. Hodson focused on the importance of accessibility, affordability, serving students regionally and afar and providing them a diversity of academic program offerings. He emphasized the importance of general education and the role of educating citizens to be socially responsible.

Upon review of Dr. Hodson’s work, it is evident that the college met the challenge Dr. Hodson set before us.

Accessibility to a high-quality education at an affordable cost was central to the creation of community colleges. For 50 years, NCCC has provided the lowest cost in the region for students to acquire a certificate or two-year credential. The cost has risen in the last 25 years largely due to the reduction of state support for community colleges.

The community college system was created by the state over 60 years ago and with the assumption that the cost to operate the college would be shared equally between the sponsoring counties (a third), the state (a third) and students.

Dr. George Hodson Jr., North Country Community College’s first president

In the 1970s, the statutory distribution changed to 40 percent from the state and 26.7 percent shared by the sponsoring counties. This system worked for a decade, but the state began to reduce its contribution (and it hovers around 31 percent today) and the cost of attending college has been shouldered by students and parents (covering 44 percent of the operating cost of college today).

Given the rising cost to students and families, we call upon our state representatives and executive branch to revisit the funding formula for community colleges so that access to higher education remains affordable for generations to come.

Having the lowest cost doesn’t necessarily translate into families easily keeping up with rising costs. The college is currently looking at strategies to make the experience more affordable. Eighty percent of our students are on some form of financial aid (whether state or federal) and more than half have most of their college costs covered by aid. But in recent years, federal aid dollars have transitioned from grants to more loans for families.

Low-income families are worried about committing to student loans. In many instances, a first-time federal loan is the largest expenditure these families have ever considered. Even though community college graduates make 15 to 20 percent more income than a peer without a higher education credential, some families in the region continue to shy away from the federal loan experience.

We reported two years ago that 75 percent of our graduates left NCCC with no debt and 25 percent left with an average debt of $11,500 for a two-year degree in hand. For those 25 percent, it’s still an incredible bargain for such a high-quality experience when compared to the debt students sometimes incur at a four-year public, private or proprietary college.

Current NCCC President Steven Tyrell speaks at the graduation ceremony in 2013. (Enterprise photo)

Dr. Hodson reminded us 50 years ago that community colleges were also created to insure that a higher education credential was not limited to the financial, social or intellectual elites. The recent initiative with SUNY Potsdam is a partnership that marries access and affordability for those New Yorkers who wish to attend SUNY Potsdam, and we would welcome them to become permanent residents of the North Country in the years to follow.

Access and affordability are also the foundation of NCCC’s Bridge program, which enrolled 2,100 students in 2016-17. High school students can complete up to 30 college credits in their high school from NCCC before graduating high school. This program is a great benefit to high school students as they pay for college credits at a reduced cost, thus making their overall college experience in the following years incredibly more affordable.

As state funding issues remain a concern, it isn’t clear the state has a plan to insure that middle-income and lower-income families will always have a place at the table in the future.

Dr. Hodson stated 50 years ago that the college was created to serve both Essex and Franklin counties’ residents AND residents across the state and elsewhere. Who is attending the community college today has changed. Fifty years ago, a large majority of the incoming first-year class were 18-year-old high school graduates. Today, although 66 percent of the students attending NCCC come from Franklin and Essex counties, only a small percentage attend a community college right out of high school. Many wait a few years and then begin college. The average age of a community college student today is between 24 and 28 years of age. Many residents from our sponsoring counties attend classes as part of a credentialing activity related to job enhancement or in preparation of returning to a four-year college they attended in years past.

We expect to see the older student attendance increase as residents in this age group come to understand that most are eligible to have a majority of their college expenses funded by financial aid programs. It is never too late to earn a higher education credential, and the demand for one is ever increasing as the complexity of workforce skills rise in the region and across the state.

North Country Community College in the early days

Beyond the issues of access and affordability, as Dr. Hodson specified, the college has provided a diversity of quality educational offerings in liberal arts and sciences, business administration, and career curricula in business-related, engineering-related and health-related fields.

The growing “middle skills gap” across the nation and in our backyard reminds us of Dr. Hodson’s comment that the college has a responsibility in looking at ways we can assist the region in closing workforce gaps. At the same time, we can never opt out of our core commitment to social responsibility and to preparing students of all ages to be critical thinkers who can effectively problem solve, communicate and lead as ethical leaders of today and tomorrow. We need to produce graduates that are both competent in their field of study and contributing citizens, many who will return to their homes in the North Country to solve the problems of tomorrow.

NCCC, like many of its peers, strives to maintain these educational goals in all curriculums as we look toward the growing complexity of technology and societal challenges in the next 50 years.

Many more photos of NCCC’s history can be seen with this article in the printed special section commemorating the college’s 50th anniversary, published Nov. 17 and available at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise office, 54 Broadway, Saranac Lake.

A nursing student gets pinned after completing her course work.