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Cameron Brunet-Koch and Tim Nelson

College Leaders talk learner success, college preparedness

- August 11th, 2014  

Think students and parents have a lot on their minds entering a new school year? Cameron Brunet-Koch is the president of Petoskey’s North Central Michigan College (NCMC). Tim Nelson is president of Traverse City’s Northwestern Michigan College (NMC). The duo met at NMC a few weeks back to ponder the issues big and small facing them, their institutions, and their communities.

EXPRESS: Are the traditional incoming students you’re seeing prepared for college?

NELSON: Remediation is still a huge issue in this whole country. The statistics in the state of Michigan used to be 65 percent needed remediation in math and 35 percent in English. That’s declined some, but it’s still significant. We recognize we have people underprepared, and it’s not just high school students; our average student age is 27. Unless someone is using algebra or math in their jobs or lives, they won’t place into it [when they arrive at college], and the same for writing. High school writing curriculum is focused mainly on fiction, where college is more about nonfiction. It’s a national issue.

BRUNET-KOCH: I think we need to form better partnerships with our K-12 partners for a seamless transition. That is something we can work on together as opposed to this being a K-12 problem or a college problem.

The problem is that students aren’t prepared for the rigors of a college curriculum, and that might mean an intensive boot camp before college that focuses heavily on core subjects [is needed].

EXPRESS: What are you seeing for enrollment this fall, both in terms of overall student pop and also program/track trends?

BRUNET-KOCH: We will be down again but not as far down as we have been. We built our budget based on a five percent decrease and now it looks like three to four percent. You never want to be down, but it’s always better to be down less than budgeted for. We’re hoping in next year or two our numbers will really level off. We are also hoping with the start of our new CNC Fab Lab, that program will be filled to capacity.

NELSON: We budgeted for two percent down. Our traditional student population is actually up in the ten percent range, so what is down are those people who either left and found a job or left and are staying somewhere else. We’re seeing continued growth in nursing, maritime, and we have five new engineering technology programs that are becoming filled up. We also have growth in our water studies program.

EXPRESS: What would you do if you were superintendent of a K-12 school district?

BRUNET-KOCH: That’s very challenging to respond to. I don’t think I have enough information to know or know all the parts of their job well enough. I know as a college president I can say it’s not just a matter of the product they provide; the product is a result of societal influences. Just in my area alone, the schools are so different from each other, given the communities in which they’re placed and the resources available.

NELSON: I don’t disagree. If I look at any school large or small, they are trying to do their best, and I can say every superintendent is wanting student success across the board. But the larger ones might have opportunities structured around sharing and leveraging resources within their community. We’ve done some things with the ISD [Traverse Bay Intermediate School District] and TCAPS [Traverse City Area Public Schools] like sharing an information technology person and sharing an early college person and establishing that new program with them. And how do you share physical resources?

But the larger issue is taking education from a public good to a private good; how do we get all our communities to understand the importance of having an educated population? If communities and regions and states and countries don’t invest in education they’ll be at a disadvantage for the future. In other countries, people believe it [education] is the most important thing to achieve success. How do we get back to that here?

EXPRESS: Do you feel your schools are underappreciated for their reputations and contributions to the economy and community?

NELSON: I would say no. I think at least NMC has a reputation and recognition in the community. I run into alumni all the time who say it was the most valuable education they had in their life. We have alums who include the creative director at Google, doctors, lawyers…but we need to do a better job of explaining who we are. We change; we’re not what we were ten years ago and not what we were 20 years ago. We need to do a better job communicating that. But we do a community perception survey every three years, and we’re consistently in the 90 percent plus, doing what they want and doing it well.

BRUNET-KOCH: I would agree. At North Central we are very fortunate that we have a fine reputation in our community and we are valued. The college has done an adequate job of telling our story, but perhaps we have not been as proactive in talking about the value added to the community, whether that be just having educational opportunities, training, workforce dev, the cultural experiences...all the benefits of having a college in the community. It lifts everyone up. So maybe we’re leaving some appreciation on the table. It’s definitely not ‘what you did yesterday,’ it’s today and ‘what will you do for me tomorrow.’

EXPRESS: What do you respect most about each other?

BRUNET-KOCH: I can tell you without a doubt, it’s Tim’s intelligence and vision. He’s doing extrordinary things. He’s always been the one who would raise issues among other [college] presidents and put us on our toes. [Turning to Nelson] You’ve always done that. He’s a very smart man.

NELSON: Everyone has a skill set and an orientation, but first she’s really focused on learner success. And also looking at how an organization is put together. She’s able to make sure the people and pieces are in the right places.

EXPRESS: If three of the region’s top issues are keeping young professionals here, affordable housing, and diversifying our economy, how do your organizations dovetail with those issues?

BRUNET-KOCH: Of course it’s always about a strong and diversified economy, but I think our number one issue for the whole region is developing talent, so this area has employees to hire and so there will be jobs here and the talented will stay.

NELSON: We’re an economic, social and talent development agency. I make choices looking through those lenses, and those are interdependent. Our ultimate job is to provide the skills, experiences, and value to help individuals create social and economic wealth in their lifetimes. And our job is to understand the other resources in the community and leverage those resources to reach those ends.

EXPRESS: What’s your pledge for this school year? This year, I pledge to…

BRUNET-KOCH: Tim alluded to it. So I pledge to be very intentional with my actions and decisions that impact student success. If we can figure out how to retain students so they continue to pursue their goals, we will have solved our completion problem and we will have made tremendous progress with learner success. That’s what I hope for.

NELSON: We have an opening conference every fall and spring [for faculty and staff]. When I came here, my first one, I said ‘we’re not going to change our mantra every year.’ I said ‘we’re going to continue our journey and keep learning at the center of it all.’ As long as I’m here, that’s what we’re going to do, and learning has many different forms….training, a course for self enrichment, learning music through our radio station, fourth graders in the Dennos Museum… so at every opening conference it’s the beginning and end. This only happens because we have people at the college who believe it and spend their lives doing it.

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