Leading the Change in Higher Ed

By Timothy Nelson

Northwestern Michigan College’s plan puts the focus on students and sticks to its mission.

The higher-education landscape is changing, and our community colleges need to do more than adapt — we need to lead. Regulators and subsidizers are pushing to make us more efficient, graduating more people in less time, but we’re doing the same things we always have. That model is not sustainable and will ultimately lead to the commoditization of our students’ education.

At Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), we have developed a plan that redefines our institution and industry sector. In the face of these trends, we need to ensure that our priority is our mission: to advance the student and their success, in school and out. The plan rests on five pillars:

  1. We are responsible for preparing our learners and communities to be successful in the new global society and economy.
  2. We need to develop national and international leadership competencies in areas that are the underpinnings to our economy. At NMC, for instance, one leadership area is that of freshwater, as our school in Michigan sits on the Great Lakes, 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater.
  3. We need to build a network of partners, because no single institution has all of the assets needed to provide students with all of the opportunities they deserve.
  4. We need to create new credentials that fit our new world, where students are no longer geographically bound, where students’ specific skills and competencies are valued more than time in a classroom seat and where the price of higher education is sky-rocketing.
  5. We need to maintain a lifelong relationship with the students we serve.

Our goal is to reform our institution to live out these five strategic directions in order to add value to our learners and community in a way that today’s potentially commoditized learning cannot. 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.

At NMC, we make it possible for students to apply the skills they learn here in a globally minded, entrepreneurial and innovative fashion. Four years ago, my wife and I established the Global Opportunities Fund at NMC, allowing students to spend two to three weeks in an international experience connected to their area of study. Most community college students are not in the position to spend a semester abroad. On our campus, 75 percent of students work, and the average age is 27. But I’m convinced that you can create a quality two- to three-week experience to awaken in students a global curiosity, and then you can build upon that in college to prepare students to be successful in a global economy and society.

We already have relationships with universities in Costa Rica, Great Britain, South Africa, China and Brazil. These programs are integrated into the learning process and working toward equipping our students with more than just a credential for a specific job or industry — it’s about giving students a well-rounded set of tools to go beyond coloring inside the lines, to innovating and drawing the lines they want for themselves. We are also working to develop joint learning opportunities that can lead to a dual-nationality credential.

Another good example is our Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, where students use state-of-the-art equipment and have access to world-renowned experts in the field. Students learn about water issues around the world and how that resource affects social and economic structures. Our students have been the only community college students to win a number of national scholarships designed for university students. They learn to present themselves to leaders of top companies — companies for which they will be well positioned for future employment. What is most important is that there be a strong link for students between these new skills and their application in the world after college. In the first water-studies course, I tell students, “Look, I’m not preparing you for a job; I’m preparing you with the skill sets you need to build your career.”

For all community colleges nationwide, our ultimate purpose as educators can’t just be to prepare students for a job. Economists say we don’t even know what half of the jobs might be in five to 10 years. Community colleges do great and important work, but it is time to reevaluate how our colleges give students the opportunities, values and skills they need to succeed in the world of the future, change as it may.

Timothy Nelson

is the president of Northwestern Michigan College.

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