NH News
10:28 am
Fri May 9, 2014

White Mountains Community College Faces Declining Enrollment

Enrollment in the network of seven community colleges in New Hampshire nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. But while overall growth is up, the North Country’s White Mountains Community College is seeing a decline. 

After years of steady growth, White Mountains Community College faces declining enrollment.

Go to a restaurant, school or office in the North Country and chances are you'll find a White Mountains graduate.

You see em at the hospitals, you see em at the doctor's office you see em in the schools. 

Twenty-year old community college student Brandon Bedard is hoping to soon be one of those employed alums.  He grew up in Berlin and wants to stay here.  When he completes his teacher training he hopes to teach at the elementary school he attended.

So it's kind of a good boost to your morale because you're like, Ok, well they can make it so if I'm going through this then I can too. So it builds a sense of community and it brings us all together because a lot of us are going here because we want to stay here.

Keeping it local is a theme you hear a lot around White Mountains Community College. 

Almost all of its nearly 800 students live within 45 minutes of the Berlin campus or one of its learning centers. 

As the lone college of the North Country, the territory it serves is not only the largest in the state - it's also the least populated.

Yet as vital as it is to the rural economy, outgoing College President Kathy Eneguess says enrollment numbers have begun to decline.  

Statewide New Hampshire happens to be up about 2%.  Our college is down about 5%.  And we all are trying to find out why.

Nobody’s calling it a crisis yet, but after years of steady growth it's cause for concern. While administrators  search for answers, the school is trying to attract new students.

We're attacking it in many different ways.  We have actually seven new certificates that will be coming out this fall so that will draw a different set of students.  We also are having end of the year high school visits.  So next week we will have five high school from this region coming in to visit so for the students who are undecided that will be another catchment.

High school graduation numbers here and across the country have fallen - a trend that's not likely to let up for a decade.

But 21 year old education student Mariah Middleton thinks she knows the real reason enrollment numbers are down.

I think the biggest thing is the economy these days.  It's expensive for anybody to go to school.  Especially where if you're a full time mom or you have a full time job to balance a job and kids and going to school or even people that can't afford to go to school, it's probably the biggest setback for people.

Costs will ease up slightly in 2015.  Earlier this year the system announced a 5% tuition rate drop for community colleges.  A full-time, 12-credit semester will cost $4,800 next year, down about $250.

But that’s still a high cost for many North Country residents where the median income is around $33,000. And, as Eneguess says, the region continues to lose population.

Demographically Coos county has lost numbers so it really is how we become unique amongst rural community colleges.

And the answer to that may be those new courses the college is offering in the fall. One of the new programs includes the addition of a welding associate's degree – and already enrollment for next year's program has doubled.

Last year the school's grant coordinator John Holt helped secure $1.7 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Labor to build the most advanced welding lab in the state that includes three virtual welding stations. The virtual machines aren't meant to replace the real welders but -

What it does do is it does get your muscle memory.  Puts you into good techniques to make sure your sticks at the right angle, you're traveling at the right speeds.  You spend significantly more time welding when you're using a virtual welder than you do in the booth.

President Rick Fournier of Cross Machines in Berlin says five of the eight welders he employs went through the White Mountains program. 

Well we've had real good success with the people that have graduated out of their program.  They're definitely a resource for us. Most times the welding positions that we're looking for is those persons with the AWS certification and the graduates coming out of their programs have that certification. 

Job placement is also high in the White Mountains Culinary Arts program.  Students here get training to work in four star restaurants.  Professor and Chef Kurt Hohmeister says that’s a need for the North Country.

Up here the best employment is the large hotels.  We do aim at higher end restaurants mainly because of what they're gonna make for money.  If our students are gonna go to a Ninety-nine or something, they're not gonna make any money and they don't need the training.

But the kind of training they do need - tailored to fit the jobs available in the North Country - ties the school to the region and the region to the school. 

While declining enrollment means the school will have to work harder to attract the decreasing population it serves, the school faces a new challenge - after 11 years President Eneguess will be stepping aside at the end of this term to begin working in a different part of the Community College system.