Northern Essex Community College, celebrating its 50th anniversary, marked another milestone this year when it awarded 1,141 certificates and associate degrees. That's a record for the school and represents a 9 percent increase over last year's total. But college President Lane Glenn sees plenty of room for growth. NECC's 10-year plan envisions 1,500 degrees being awarded by 2020. (See story on page 1.)
Obviously, NECC is doing something right. We think we know what it is: Its certificates and associate degrees are in greater demand because they represent good value for the education dollar.
We live in the age of the higher education bubble. Like housing prices during the housing bubble, the cost of college has risen far faster than the rate of inflation as colleges raise tuition and fees to absorb every available education dollar.
Many graduates find themselves in a position similar to that of homeowners whose mortgages are "underwater." They owe more than their degree is really worth.
At NECC, average tuition and fees for full-time students are roughly $3,600 a year.
NECC knows it niche and mission well as a community college. It serves as bridge between high school and a four-year college or the working world for residents of the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.
NECC offers a number of programs for students who plan to complete work toward a bachelor's degree at a 4-year institution. One program allows students to complete work toward a NECC associate's degree using credits earned at Salem State University or the University of Massachusetts Lowell while studying for a bachelor's degree. So, for example, a student who left NECC before completing work for an associate degree can do it at Salem State or UMass Lowell, the two schools that attract the greatest number of NECC transfer students.
This is an advantage for today's students, many of who are working while attending school and may need more than the standard four years to earn a degree, said Glenn.
NECC also knows that many of its students are not interested in transferring to a four-year school and instead aim to enter the working world. NECC has for years offered numerous certificate and degree programs geared to prepare students for specific occupations.
Under Glenn, it has partnered with Whittier Regional Tech and Greater Lawrence Tech to offer college-level classes in machine tools technology (with Whittier) and auto technician training (with Greater Lawrence).
"Employers in those trades are changing and looking for education beyond high school," Glenn said.
One indication of NECC's own success is a measure called the student success rate. It shows the percentage of students who have earned a degree, gone on to a four-year college or are on track to do so. This year the number was 78 percent, up from 75 percent a year ago. Glenn's oal is to raise it to 84 percent.
Given the fact that almost half of four-year college students never graduate, those are impressive numbers.