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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Northern Marianas College and the path forward

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THE double disasters of Typhoon Yutu and Covid-19 have led decision makers throughout the NMI to tighten their belts, make drastic cuts, and appeal to Washington for assistance, and Northern Marianas College is no exception.

These are all appropriate measures.  But let me suggest another point of view: that these disasters have created an opportunity. 

How can these things be anything other than disasters?  College campuses throughout America are asking themselves the same question.  Though they are not dealing with the near-death blow of a super typhoon, they are coming off one of their worst semesters ever and are looking at a bleak autumn.  Campuses face severe budget shortfalls due to Covid-related declines, but that hides a much larger problem.  Colleges and universities have experienced steady drops in student enrollment over the last ten years.  Simply, people are not seeking a higher education like they used to and it’s time to ask why.

Many people have done the cost-benefit analysis and found higher education not worth the money anymore.  Students graduate with huge debt and find that they have not acquired even a basic education, let alone an expertise.  We all know the data; we wince when we see college graduates who cannot spell or do simple math.  Employers groan when they learn that hiring a college grad did not gain them the human resource it once did.  As tuition skyrockets and the quality of education plummets, people are finding other paths.  Some enter the workforce right after graduating high school, while others look to vocational and technical schools to acquire skills. 

If college tuition keeps going up while the quality of education goes down, what is happening?  Many institutions have gotten into everything except teaching, as anyone who has been to college recently knows.  Campuses have become incubators for social justice and political activism; they nurture students’ self-esteem rather than exercise their brains.  Most colleges have become bloated and top-heavy, with payrolls for administrators far exceeding that of faculty.

That is the problem, here is the solution for NMC.  It is time to become, not just relevant, but indispensable to the islands.  It starts with remembering why the college is in business.  It is not to create a glut of high-paying jobs for bureaucrats who sit at desks all day.  It starts with a true mission statement, and not the goofy, two-sentence diatribes full of large words about “facilitating” and “empowering” students.  I’m talking about answering the question: why is NMC here?  NMC is here to give people an education in order that they become more productive people, both as workers and as members of society.

Before you say “Of course, BC,” take a look around.  How many colleges have forgotten that basic principle?  A student who is politically “woke” and has learned to shout down his opponents rather than reason with them is not a productive, educated citizen, he is a nuisance.  At many colleges, the literature requirement can be satisfied by taking a course called “Readings in Witchcraft.”  The student has no idea who wrote the Declaration of Independence but they know who Harry Potter’s teacher was. Imagine what employers must think when they interview such college grads for real-world jobs.  Productive indeed.  Educated indeed.  And for that gem of learning they pile on more student debt. 

Once the college community embraces its true role, it can analyze the extent to which it is performing that role.  Which functions are considered core, and which are considered peripheral?  Many colleges are not just trimming the fat from certain programs, they are cutting entire programs, closing entire departments, in the name of cost savings. 

When students do the cost-benefit analysis, how does NMC stack up?  What is college credit from your institution worth when compared to, say, University of Guam or a college on the mainland?  If the answer is “not much” then why should students go to your school?  Are people not signing up for classes?  Then you are not offering what they need.  Are they going to other schools instead?  Then you are not competitive.  There are specific ways to increase the cost-benefit ratio and the competitiveness of NMC.  We can go into that another time.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 gutted that community, leaving 100,000 people homeless.  Everyone believed the city was finished.  How could it rebuild from such a disaster?  But the people of Chicago took a different view.  They saw the fire as an opportunity to clear out unused buildings, to reset their community priorities, to correct flawed planning, to rebuild the city more as they wanted it.  The result is the massive metropolis we see today.  In many ways, the fire was the best thing that happened to that city.  Five years from now, we could say that Yutu and Covid were the best things that happened to NMC.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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