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Delivering on the American Dream for Students from All Walks of Life

Northeast Iowa Community College implemented a series of changes to increase its student completion and retention goals and achieved graduation rates 24 percent above the national averages.

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

Liang Wee

Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) serves a 4,800-square-mile district that is mostly rural in northeast Iowa, bordering Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. NICC offers more than 90 diploma, degree, and certificate programs to a socioeconomically and academically diverse student population; additionally, we provide non-credit training and employer-recognized credentials to over 35,000 individuals yearly. On an annual basis, we serve 1 out of every 4 residents aged 18-65, a statistic that puts NICC in the 96th percentile nationwide.

As a Champion of Change and a finalist in the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, NICC is most proud of our comprehensive system of student advising, continuous improvement in developmental education, attentive service to students with disabilities, and meeting the needs of the labor market. In order for our students to compete in the market place, we are determined to help them complete their program of study.

On September 21, the discussion facilitated by Director Melody Barnes, Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary Jane Oates, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Frank Chong affirmed the important link between economic competitiveness and education and the central role of community colleges in providing skilled labor to the business community. In order to succeed as a nation, more of our students must pursue and complete post-secondary education and understand that career and technical education is a viable option for them. The discussion focused on the importance of timely and adequate funding from the state and federal government to support increased developmental and remedial education, student advising and support services and curriculum development in high-growth, high-wage industries.

Over the past several years, NICC has worked hard on its student completion and retention goals. As a result, approximately two-thirds of our full-time students completed a program, transferred to another institution, or remain enrolled, and our graduation rates are 24 percent above the national averages. These figures are especially positive in light of the fact that 93% of students tested at least one course-level below college level in at least one subject area. We attribute this to availability of relevant programs, and engaging and retention efforts that focus on the individual student and strong connections to business and industry.

To date, NICC has fundamentally restructured how it delivers student services: a) frontloading student interventions and services during the critical first six weeks based on our SENSE survey and participation in the ESSI Institute, b) implementing a holistic advising model requiring every student to meet with an advisor every term, c) developing an improved new student orientation and an online mode of delivery, d) providing regular advisor professional development opportunities, e) growing the Student Life Office through student government, a focus on service learning, and popular student activities, f) establishing student crises funds through annual fundraisers to financially assist students through short-term crises that would otherwise impede them from continuing education, and g) implementing LEAN office processes to remove barriers in student engagement (e.g., offering walk-in advising services) and h) implementing an Adult Transition Office that provides one-on-one individualized assistance and career advising to the over 25 population, late career changers, or women/men pursuing nontraditional careers.  In addition, our Office of Disability Services assists each qualifying student with individualized planning, coordination, and implementation of services which may include personal and vocational counseling, training, and job placement services.

NICC also convened a task force (comprised of the provost, faculty, staff, students) to fundamentally restructure the delivery of developmental education that would not only affect the approximately 15% of the student body enrolled in developmental education courses, but also the nearly 90% that test below college level.  As a result of the task force, NICC has instituted the following changes: a) piloting of a contextualized learning model based on Washington State’s I-BEST program, b) revamping of peer tutoring programs on both campuses, c) increasing writing brush-up courses, d) providing learning strategies workshop and computerized support, e) updating accommodative software for students with disabilities, and f) nurturing of the Support Through the Encouragement of Peers (STEP) program that provides academic, personal, and social support to students with disabilities by their peers.

NICC’s credit programs as well as our Continuing Education and Economic Development rely on labor market data, Iowa Workforce Development reports, local business surveys, business roundtables, alumni surveys, and advisory boards to develop programs that are responsive to workforce need. These efforts have led to a slate of new green energy, IT and advanced manufacturing credit and non-credit programs, a non-credit leadership certificate program for soft skills training, and a business consortium that allows small businesses to pool resources together to offer joint trainings. Both the vice president of academic affairs and the vice president of economic development are actively partnering in developing programs where career ladders are emphasized, partnerships are pursued, and multiple degree pathways are offered.

NICC prides itself on its connections to business and industry.  As a result, the college has recently created some very strong agriculture and renewable energy programs in direct response to workforce need including Wind Turbine Repair Technician program, “Green Jobs” non-credit training, Gas Utilities Construction and Service, Chemical Technician program, and Large Animal Veterinary Technician program. It has established national centers of excellence, such as the Northeast Iowa Dairy Center, the National Agricultural Center for Agriculture Safety, and Iowa’s only Regional Academy for Math and Science (RAMS).  In addition, NICC is the only community college in the state to have two professors named Iowa Professor of the Year by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching/Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

While NICC’s achievements to date are notable, the college has no doubt its best years are yet to come.  We are committed to improving student learning outcomes. NICC is also cognizant of the growth of online education and continues to develop hybrid and fully online programs as appropriate; currently, 20 programs are completely online.  Increasing the use of third party assessments, such as through the National Career Readiness Certification (NCRC), the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) basic skills assessment, and other industry-recognized assessments will further validate NICC’s student learning outcomes and meeting labor market demands.

Dr. Liang Wee is President of Northeast Iowa Community College