Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Silver Linings

I had the great pleasure of joining my family and some friends at the Kacey Musgraves concert at MVCC this past weekend at our own Robert R. Jorgensen Center. Our amazing Events Office partnered with Big Frog FM Country to bring Kacey to town. She’s a two-time Grammy Award winner and two-time Country Music Award winner who writes playfully vivid lyrics.  Kacey and her band gave a great performance and I emerged a new fan as her music provided me with a new lens on our world.

My academic training in organizational development often orients my mind to applying concepts and experiences – however disparate – to our College as a way to continually analyze and understand where we are.  One of Kacey’s hit songs is called “Silver Lining,” and I bought it the day after the concert. Some of the lyrics quickly brought to mind our current enrollment and budget situation. As she sings, “If you’re ever gonna find a silver lining, it’s gotta be a cloudy day. If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightening, you’re gonna have to stand in the rain.” Kacey captures the two sides of every coin paradox that certainly applies to where we are with our enrollment – as we now return to “pre-recession enrollment levels.”

We’re emerging from the Great Recession where the counter-cyclical nature of community enrollment was magnified in an unprecedented manner. From 2007-2014, MVCC had the 3rd largest percentage enrollment increase within the SUNY system (28%) and assumed the highest percentage of Pell-eligible and career-oriented students while maintaining the 5th lowest tuition and the 2nd lowest cost per student in the system. This was due in large part to the regional economic toll of the recession combined with our creative and aggressive outreach efforts – when people can't find work, they go back to college to upgrade their skills, and we were there for them. 

As the economy got a stronger footing in 2013 and people went back to work (the unemployment rate dropped from 9.7% to 5.5%), the declining enrollment impact was amplified by the fact that the high school graduating class was the first one born after Griffiss Air Force Base closed 18 years earlier in 1995. The subsequent overall drop in high school graduates certainly has had a negative impact on our enrollment, but ironically, the percentage of high school graduates in Oneida County attending MVCC has increased in the past few years, surpassing 30% this past fall.

While we were expanding enrollment 5% to 10% a year from 2009-2012, some wondered why we would pursue such growth knowing it could not be maintained in the long term. The short answer is that MVCC needed to be there for this community when it needed us most – during a once-in-a-century recession. The positive relationships and the community trust that was nurtured as the result of our response has been confirmed in a recent community assessment that involved nearly 900 individuals participating in interviews and focus groups.

From that assessment, it seems clear that we do have lightning in a bottle, but now we just need to stand in the rain for a little bit. And while the current budget makes for some cloudy days, the silver lining is that we have an abundance of partnerships, as well as a deeper sense of our core mission, to provide a trained workforce and educated citizenry through a robust array of workforce development programs and a heightened commitment to the liberal arts and sciences.

The future economic outlook for our community has never been brighter.  MVCC is now seen as a central catalyst to helping reverse four decades of economic decline in the next 5-10 years, as we collectively pursue a diverse high-tech economy that will be oh so sweet.  We have some challenging decisions to be made in the next few months to balance the 2015-16 budget, but as Kacey Musgraves sings, “If you wanna find the honey, you can’t be scared of the bees. And if you wanna see the forest, you’re gonna have to look past the trees.”

Those lyrics are on point as I think about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re headed. Cloudy days are all too easy to find here in the Mohawk Valley, but fortunately, the silver linings are getting easier to spot as well.