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Demographics behind falling numbers at NCTC

Dennis Bona, president of Northland Community and Technical College, delivered on Thursday his 2017 State of the College address. The campus presentation was wide-ranging and spotlighted academic improvements as well as enrollment declines. (Andrew Haffner/Grand Forks Herald)

Dennis Bona, president of Northland Community and Technical College, started his Thursday presentation of the 2017 State of the College by focusing on the positives.

In that, he had plenty to say. Bona outlined the formation of the school's manufacturing program and its creation of an associate degree in general agriculture. He also touched on the school winning a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $600,000 in unmanned aerial systems training, its $1 million bonding from the state of Minnesota to renovate science labs and the continued success of its football and volleyball teams.

But even with the list of accomplishments and accolades, a peal of laughter went up from the audience when Bona introduced a slide about enrollments—illustrated with a photo of a crying child.

"We've taken a bigger hit than we thought we'd have," he said. Student headcounts are "significantly" down at NCTC, which sits at an enrollment level about 8 percent lower than what it had at this time last fall.

Bona attributes that drop to a variety of factors, but demographics was the first he flagged in his presentation. According to Bona, community colleges "couldn't do much better" than when members of the baby boomer generation were rising through the ranks of their careers. Back then, he said, employees would routinely arrive at their local colleges to sharpen their skills and adapt to a modernizing, increasingly digital landscape.

The generations that followed them have been less helpful to the community college bottom line. Generation X, those who came directly after the boomers, frequented tech schools less than their elders did. Millennials come around even less than that and so on.

Bona also identified a strong local economy as an enrollment obstacle—why spend money on education when just about anyone can find work, he reasoned—and a population shift out of the surrounding region as another possible knock.

Still, the reduced enrollments have yet to leave a major impact on the school's budget. Bona said NCTC raised tuition rates by about 1 percent over last year and is forecast to avoid a deficit situation. The lower number of students also hasn't stopped the school from setting other major initiatives in motion. Bona said NCTC is well on its way to building an endowment to fund scholarships for students older than 23, a population he says is often underserved by existing financial aid. The college also has a new service learning requirement for degree-seeking students, a move intended to help them put their skills to work for good in the wider community.

In the long run, he was optimistic that enrollments would bounce back as the college re-geared itself to meet student needs.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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