To grow the best work force in the state, start with the best education.
“There’s now 13 community and/or technical colleges in the state, and we rib each other back and forth over which one is the flagship community college,” Bossier Parish Community College Chancellor Jim Henderson said. “While that’s a jest, we think we hold a good claim to that title.”
The college graduated more students Wednesday – 378 – than in any fall graduation in the school’s history despite its lowest state funding level ever. Henderson and his administrative staff don’t bemoan that funding – it’s a source of pride.
“We are the lowest funded college in the state,” Henderson said. “The results that come from the implementation of the funding formula is not the intent. The intent is to grow institutions, to have institutions achieve their goals at very high levels and to do so in the face of dwindling state resources. They never envisioned a college growing 85 percent in four years. They never envisioned a college doubling its graduation rate in the same time period. They never envisioned a college growing its number of annual completers by over 95 percent in four years.”
In short, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System funding is going to have to catch up to success at BPCC.
Enrollment in the fall of 2008 – at 4,665 students – was the lowest it had been since 2004. In five years, those numbers swelled to reach 8,512 students with no signs of slowing down.
During that same time period, BPCC went from receiving at least 70 percent of its funding from the state to today with only 25 percent coming from state coffers – levels only present at BPCC and LSU.
BPCC lacks much of the ability to compensate for reductions in spending, putting Henderson in the same boat as every college in the state. Teachers, students and faculty are all asked to do more with less.
“If this continued for another year even, it would directly negatively impact our ability to serve students,” Henderson said. “But every indication is they are making the necessary adjustments that will allow us to grow, flourish and serve the needs of this regional economy.”Tuition has increased 10 percent each of the past few years, now nearly $3,000 per year. Keeping costs low is a creative exercise, Henderson said.
Growing in the lean times
There’s little hope in begging or fighting for more state funding. BPCC needs a consumer model to continue its growth pattern.
“We have found ways to meet the needs of our consumers,” Henderson said. “If you look at the financial model of higher education, it has become truly consumer-based. Colleges are much more reliant on students and employers for their resources than they are the state. To us, that creates an incentive to be ever more responsive to their needs.”
The average age for BPCC students is 27, an age where total dedication to education is nearly impossible – bills still have to be paid and children need to be raised.
Small class sizes, a lower price point and location are general selling points for community colleges. Henderson said BPCC has tried to capitalizes on those strong points.
About 2,500 BPCC students attend “hybrid courses,” which may have students in a classroom only one day a week while the rest of the work is done online. The system allows time for fewer teachers to be with more students and gives students time to do classwork on their own time.
Madison Kennedy, 20, wanted to stay close to her Haughton home, so she chose BPCC for her associate’s degree..
It made it easier for her to study while raising her twin girls and working a nearby job. Most of her courses met in a classroom, but her math classes were online.
“It was a lot of work, but it was everything I expected and a good experience,” Kennedy said. “There’s no way I could have done a four-year school so far from home.”
Crafting flexible schedules, Henderson said, allows more leeway for students who may otherwise have felt higher education was beyond their reach. From shorter semesters for some to seven days on, seven days off classes for oil rig workers, Henderson said the aim is to advance general education attainment for the local work force.Although tuition is rising, Henderson said the cost difference between a traditional four-year university and BPCC keeps students coming.
“We’re still the best bargain in the business,” Henderson said. “When you look at the placement rates of our graduates and the salaries they’re earning when they get to work, a small investment of about $3,000 a year certainly pays off in the long run.”
The college has basically the same work force today as it did in 2004, Henderson said, when BPCC had about 4,500 students. Adding 10 full-time instructors since then, instead of adding to administrative positions, makes the dollars invested in hiring valuable for the student experience.
The college will need local and regional partners to continue its growth.
Bossier City Mayor Lo Walker said his government won’t let BPCC fail. He calls it “Our College.”
To support the mission, Walker said there have been preliminary talks of offering city land to the college for expansion purposes and even matching some of its funding.
“Bossier Parish Community College can’t compete, on some levels, with four-year colleges, but I see the school’s growth trending up,” Walker said. “It will be a leader of community colleges throughout the state for decades to come.”
Fifty-eight of Louisiana’s 64 parishes and 30 states are represented in BPCC’s 2013 enrollment numbers.
Of 8,512 students, the majority continue to come from Caddo and Bossier. However, the school is also home to sizeable enrollments from parishes including DeSoto, West Carroll, Natchitoches and Lincoln. 5,786 are from Caddo and Bossier. Webster sent 458, DeSoto sent 304, West Carroll sent 319, Natchitoches sent 190 and Lincoln sent 124.
“We are focused on our region,” Henderson said. “We’ll have students that come from all over, especially for our cyber programs because they’re truly world class. With our proximity to Barksdale Air Force Base, you’ll have a number of transitional students that will come in. We’ll continue to provide them services and provide them seamless pathways to other universities, but our true focus is right here serving this market.”Dillon Sullivan, 20, of Minden, who received his associate’s degree for oil and gas technology Wednesday, said BPCC provided him the best option for his future career that was affordable and closest to home.
It was also the first step in his educational trek in one of Louisiana’s most dominant industries. Soon he’ll be working toward his bachelor’s degree from LSU-Shreveport.
“I’m ready. I’m fully prepared,” Sullivan said.
BPCC’s connection with the nearby Cyber Innovation Center, Walker said, has made Bossier City a future hub of national defense education and production. Cyber threats are stepping out of the realm of science fiction into reality, and locals will be there to fill the demand.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s push to raise the prestige of Louisiana community and technical colleges – sometimes at the expense of traditional four-year institutions – is less about the actual schools than it is about students and employers, Henderson said.
The still-in-construction Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Technology is one of the most vivid examples of the school’s employer-centric model. The $22 million facility is being built specifically for one of the region’s newest and most valuable employers, Benteler Steel/Tube.
The facility will serve as a tool for ramping up the local hiring for the German manufacturer starting in 2015.
“The Advanced Manufacturing Training Center we’re building on campus is the perfect investment to attract new employers like Benteler,” Henderson said. “At the same time, it provides us the infrastructure to meet the growing needs of our existing employer base.”
It’s a long-term investment, Henderson said, because Benteler is expected to be a signal for other durable goods manufacturers that Shreveport-Bossier City is a strong and safe place to do business. But the area will need a trained, capable work force to drive that point home, and manufacturing isn’t the job it used to be.
“Skilled labor is one of the most important factors in the production equation,” Henderson said. “Manufacturing is not some place you go because you didn’t succeed in school. It demands knowledge, skills and ability from a more technically minded work force than ever before. We’re happy to step in a provide that seamless pathway for our students and incumbent workers so they can meet the needs of the 21st century work force.”