SMC ‘State of the College’ highlights student success and plans for growthPublished 10:21am Wednesday, January 13, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
It came as a “revelation” to Southwestern Michigan College President Dr. David M. Mathews that student academic success among the best in the nation by itself was “not enough to attract students,” with a few exceptions such as the nursing program or fine and performing arts.
“For me,” he said, “all of my mental energy and all of our allocation had gone into folding resources back into the academic program, closing some low-enrollment programs,” such as aircraft maintenance.
That redirected $500,000 expanded other academic endeavors, such as the automotive technology program being enlarged this year with a Kairis Building makeover.
The program has grown 47 percent over the last three years to where “we’re literally out of space,” Mathews said. “We’re putting some space for emerging technology, like computer cabling, a fledgling young program.
“We can offer classes and see if we want to actually dedicate space to it, plumbing or the electrical apprentice program.”
A “pivotal point” came with the decision to construct student housing, which doubled favorable responses of high school juniors in student surveys.
“It’s not just academic programs that we all talk about, it’s making friends, it’s having things to do and living on my own,” Mathews says. “Our mission is to be the college of first choice for students who have a choice. We did that through academic programs for the last decade, trying to make them so strong people would come to us. But we found there are other factors.”
SMC’s master plan envisions a third student apartment building, even a fourth, but while “it’s not too soon to think about a third building, it’s way too soon for me to commit to it.”
The first, (Vice Chairman Keith) McKenzie Hall, opened last summer with 100-percent occupancy and remains full.
To beef up student life in addition to on-campus housing, SMC doubled Zollar Sports Center into a wireless Student Activity Center with rock climbing, three resistance training pools, pool tables, a game room, a coffee bar, a fitness center, racquetball courts, intramural sports and a theater which offers everything from first-run movies such as “The Hangover” and “Inglorious Basterds” to open mic nights and live music.
“We’re competing for students. We needed to ramp up student life and go with on-campus student housing,” Mathews said. “We get students from two sources – right out of high school and older working adults/displaced workers. High school graduating classes are getting smaller. That baby boom echo peaked a couple of years ago.”
At the same time, the older population of adults 25 to 55 is also shrinking 1 percent a year – 10 percent over the last decade.
Yet SMC “has grown by a third in two years,” Mathews said.
“Clearly, some of that is a bad economy, where people cannot afford to go directly to a state university. The beauty of this building (the Zollar SAC) is that it serves all 3,000 students, not just 130 living over there, which in turn makes student life activities richer for all 3,000 students.
“It’s also a great community resource,” with 144 memberships sold.
Mathews teaches rock climbing Wednesday afternoons.
Later this month SMC will announce creation of six new academic programs.
“Five are in line with the top 20 jobs of the next decade,” he said.
Competing for students is essential because of the fallaway of Michigan support.
Absent federal stimulus which “plugged the holes” in Lansing’s budget this year, Michigan’s “structural budgetary problem” for next year hovers between another $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion.
In 2001-2002, when Mathews took the SMC helm, state aid accounted for 49 percent of the money the college received, compared to 32 percent today, or a slide from $7.2 million to $6.2 million annually.
That makes tuition and fees crucial, so they account for more revenue – 41 percent, up from 27 percent.
Mathews expects the next round of state cuts after the next fiscal year begins July 1 could pack another 15-percent punch for another $1 million loss to withstand.
“Basically, no matter how bad things get in Lansing,” he said, “we are going to be a place where students are very successful. That’s good news for the region. There has never been a time in the history of the college where affordable access to high-quality college education has been more important.”
“Our enrollment growth pattern will provide us with more tuition and fees,” he said. “Our strategies have come together at exactly the right time so we can continue to invest in academic success and student life, which in turn will result in more students choosing to come to us. We don’t know how much of our enrollment increase is sustainable. We’re dissecting that. If we get $8 million in tuition and fees and I guess wrong by 10 percent, my budget’s wrong by $800,000. That didn’t use to be the case when tuition and fees were a quarter of our revenue. The strategy of becoming a college of first choice serves us well, which is why we’re not looking at reductions or staff layoffs or cutting programs. We’re looking at selectively adding some faculty and academic support positions.”
Mathews rose through teaching ranks as a research mathematician. “For me, the number-one focus was academics.”
As president, he is a generalist whose responsibilities span every department.
He scrutinizes their totality “from a bunch of different angles” like a scientist dissects a cell.
“You can’t narrowly slice one department. You have to look at all of the interacting facets of the college,” as he did for the media preview of his State of the College address Tuesday night for the Board of Trustees.
“I’ve sliced the college by academics, where we’re demonstrably strong. I’ve sliced it by our ability to compete for students. We’re doing very well. I’ve looked at facility improvements. Our staff (human resources he regards as SMC’s most valuable asset). And finances.”
A graphic he created for trustees resembles a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle missing one piece upon which balances a diamond labeled student success in an attempt to “put a picture on the different initiatives we were involved in at the college. Our core business is education and our way of doing business is continuous quality improvement, but we had made major initiatives in our human resources and made major technology expenditures, such as putting in place a Michigan Technological Education Center at our Niles campus” in Milton Township.
“For us, it’s about creating a base that supports that crown jewel of student academic success. Everything we do has to somehow match up, mesh up, student academic success,” said Mathews, Dowagiac’s 1978 valedictorian. “We came to realize a couple of years ago that there was one more piece we had identified that could be slid in to complete that base,” which is student life.
“We had done as many as we could do as a commuter campus,” so SMC last fall opened its first apartments for 130 students.
A second residence hall is under construction to open this August.
A third building is possible, although SMC cautiously arranged them so if it stopped before completing the “triangular quad,” it would not be noticeable.
“A year ago I reported we were in the top 10 percent” nationally, Mathews said. “We’re now in the top 5 percent in everything across the board, from automotive mechanics to zoology. And when our students leave us – and 60 percent are in transfer programs who go on and get bachelor’s degrees – they are in the top 2 percent of students in the nation by other people’s measurements. That’s huge.”
When SMC, accredited for 10 years in 2001, began participating in the National Community College Benchmark Project (NCCBP) in 2006, benchmarking data showed SMC ranking in the top 11 percent of community colleges in the country for student course success. The following year, 2007, the college inched up to the top 10 percent. In 2008, that ranking was once again the top 11 percent.
Now, in 2009, SMC catapulted to a ranking of top 5 percent in the nation for student course success.
In addition to ranking in the top 5 percent in the nation among community colleges for student course success, the benchmarking report now ranked SMC students who transfer to four-year programs in the top 2 percent in the nation for transfer student success.
“Based on this study, the average student GPA, newly established upon transfer to a four-year university is 3.24,” Mathews said. “This measure shows how well students perform at numerous different institutions upon leaving Southwestern Michigan College. Not only are our students successful here at the college regardless of their program of study, but they significantly outperform students in university programs into which they transfer.
“SMC students outperform students who transferred from other institutions. SMC students also outperform those who began at the university.”
A sampling of more than 200 community colleges from around the nation participate in this project each year where relevant data is compiled to establish performance comparisons.
“One of the reasons SMC participates in this study is to provide external feedback to the college regarding our allocation of resources to produce student success. The NCCBP allows us to do that. The success that our students enjoy is a direct reflection of the dedicated instructors, the academic support professionals and the institution-wide focus of resources on student success that characterizes Southwestern Michigan College.”
A television cameraman, a lifelong resident of South Bend, told Mathews he had never been to SMC before.
When he went to a workshop for new presidents in 2001, they were asked to identify their top concern.
“EIght out of 10 of these guys and women said, ‘Crumbling facilities’ after decades of deferred maintenance,” Mathews recalled.
“That’s not the situation we find ourselves in. Since 2001, we’ve added the M-TEC facility (in Niles), we expanded Conference Center East with smart classrooms. We gutted the Barbara Wood Building to create an IT (information technology) certification center. We doubled the size of the building we’re in, the Student Activity Center, we built McKenzie Hall, next August we open the second student housing unit and we are in the midst of a midwinter construction project of the Kairis building,” which will be connected to the old aviation maintenance hangar.
The classroom will be big enough to pull in a car and lift it up on a hoist for instruction.
SMC is serious about maintaining campus safety with security measures.
Even in the daytime, visitors cannot enter the dorm or SAC without an identity card, plus there is someone physically at the front desks for visual observation.
Guests sign in. There are key-coded access locks on the suite, plus another one on the student’s personal bedroom. Video surveillance protects gated parking lots.
“We’re in the middle of a huge campuswide lighting upgrade,” Mathews said. “The number of lights we’re putting in with the second housing equals what we put in between the first housing and Zollar combined. We’re redoing lights on our major parking lights this coming year.
“In addition to that, everybody’s read about Virginia Tech. We have a red flag system on our Internet that’s open to all of our students and employees, who can anonymously report someone who’s saying things that aren’t right or exhibiting behavior that needs to be looked into” to prevent something like a mass shooting.
A campus concerns team involves law enforcement.
SMC maintains partnerships with Dowagiac Police Department, Cass County Sheriff’s Office and a private security consultant.
The system is tested periodically.
“We have a slice here of the world that is a microcosm of society,” Mathews said.