How Northwest College is planning for future changes

Posted 2/23/21

Spend anytime on the Northwest College campus these days, and you’ll hear about transformation. It’s not just a buzzword to get people pumped about the future of the college. It’s a …

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How Northwest College is planning for future changes


Spend anytime on the Northwest College campus these days, and you’ll hear about transformation. It’s not just a buzzword to get people pumped about the future of the college. It’s a plan to realign the college’s identity and marketing strategies to a higher education landscape that has greatly changed over the past decade. 

The challenges with declining enrollments and state support are part of a trend seen across the country, and NWC’s marketing and recruiting department is faced with the difficulty of finding things that work, as the things that worked in the past are not showing the results they used to. 

The college’s employees “have put their hearts and souls into recruiting students from a smaller prospective student population,” explained Carey Miller, NWC’s communications and marketing director, “and the competition with other colleges and universities for the same students has never been more fierce.”

That’s not likely to change any time soon, so the college is looking to change itself.


Ghost students

Last summer, at a cost of $93,160, the college contracted with CampusWorks, a consulting firm, to help guide the development of the plan.

“It’s become clear that to survive and thrive, we must do more than ‘think outside the box.’ We need to bust the box wide open,” Miller said,  “and our transformation work with CampusWorks can help us do just that.”

At the NWC Board of Trustees’ Feb. 8 meeting, CampusWorks CEO Liz Murphy provided an update — a “destination check” — on where the three-phase plan development process currently sits. 

The presentation showed there are a lot of pressures facing the college and no silver bullet — no single action — NWC can use to rectify its enrollment declines. 

The full-time equivalent enrollment, which is the total number of credit hours by all students divided by 12, peaked at 2,198 in 2009. In the fall 2020, it was down to 1,205.

Illustrating these challenges, Murphy showed demographic changes in the college’s service area: Park, Big Horn and Washakie counties. Between 2010 and 2019,  the number of people ages 15 to 19 decreased from 3,321 to 2,991. For ages 20 to 24, the population declined from 2,460 to 2,344, and for ages 25 to 29, the drop was from 2,770 to 2,446. 

Basically, the number of young people who are in the most college-bound age group is shrinking. Couples are having fewer kids, and more high school students are moving away after graduation. 

Trustee Carolyn Danko remarked on the difficulty she’s had convincing people that enrollment is being impacted by families getting smaller. 

“It’s very hard to recruit ghost students,” Danko said. 

Population shifts in the tri-county area are showing up among those in late- and mid-career ages as well. The number of people over the age of 60 saw the largest increase, of nearly 3%, and those ages 30 to 39 increased a little over 1%. The population of those 40 to 49, and 50 to 59, saw declines. 

While these may seem like small changes, college administrators say they are having enormous impacts. 

“We’re doing this because the world has changed a lot,” Murphy told the board.


COVID-19 impacts

Not only are demographics shifting, COVID has caused unprecedented changes in the last year. In the past, unemployment rates strongly correlated with college enrollment. Last year, unemployment rates rose to nearly 10%, whereas enrollment fell by nearly the same amount. 

“They [community colleges] can no longer count on recessions to deliver students,” said Justin Norris, CampusWorks portfolio executive leader. 

The pandemic also forced colleges to move to online formats, which makes them more nimble and their reach wider. That could mean more competition for NWC.

“You might see some encroachment,” Murphy warned. 

Another shift is that baby boomers, who occupy managerial positions in industries, are retiring. So, younger people are being moved up the ladder, where they take on more responsibilities requiring more skills — especially soft skills like time management and interpersonal communication. 

The college administration began recognizing these pressures well before CampusWorks was brought on board, and long before the pandemic. In 2019, as NWC was wrestling with a second round of budget cuts, the administration began rethinking strategies.

“Recognizing the dire financial situation the State of Wyoming was facing, we knew we weren’t talking about small fixes here and there, but a major institutional effort,” Interim President Lisa Watson explained. 


New identity 

CampusWorks is carrying the planning in three phases, all of which involve a series of focus groups, surveys, sessions, summits and data analysis. The first phase began in July and finished up in the fall.

Out of that work came four core idea models — marketing lingo for unique and inherent truths about an institution that differentiates it in ways that are meaningful and persuasive to the college’s target audience. 

The core models determine how the college could differentiate itself from its competitors by looking at who it’s serving, what that group’s needs are, how the college meets their needs, and what unique resources and assets it has to create the right experience for the students it serves.

Essentially, they’re exploring options for an identity the college could effectively adopt to serve the needs of students today.

So, for example, one possible model the college could follow is the destination model, in which NWC creates a distinctive learning experience for those seeking to enjoy, work, and live in the Yellowstone ecosystem. This model would target out-of-state outdoor adventurers, high school students taking a year off after graduation, travel learners and international students. The curriculum would then be designed to satisfy the needs of this group — and with NWC’s proximity to Yellowstone, it has an asset to leverage in that regard. 

Another model is the distinctive program model, which would target niche markets. At the CampusWorks presentation, Norris provided the example of one school that targeted aspiring novelists, with a specific program to satisfy the needs of those who just want to learn about novel writing. Norris wasn’t suggesting the approach for NWC, but it illustrated how this particular core idea works.

Finally, the workforce model partners with industries and businesses to provide training and skill development, and the pathways model would target a broad market of traditional and adult students with hybrid and online learning, to create pathways to further education. 

The second phase of the project, which CampusWorks is now finishing up, is taking these core idea concepts and testing the students, staff, faculty and community members to determine the best ways for NWC to position itself. 


Wrapping up

The final phase of the work, which is expected to wrap up this summer, will create an actionable and implementable roadmap for the college. 

“We have ... put in long hours these past eight months with CampusWorks to ensure that whatever transformation road map comes from this work is the blood, sweat and tears of people with boots on the ground here at the college and in collaboration with our students and our supporters in the Big Horn Basin,” Miller said. 

When this roadmap is laid out and ready to be acted upon, the board will consider the idea of rebranding the college, something that’s received a lot of support in the community. It’ll be some time before a final result emerges from all this work, how NWC will change, how it will stay the same, and if it can become sustainable. 

What is certain is that the institution is gearing up for big changes — and those planning for those changes are optimistic about NWC’s future. 

“No matter what plans evolve, it’s important that NWC remains engaged with the local community … to honor our history and because we need each other,” said Shelby Wetzel, executive director of the NWC Foundation.