One of the issues Gretchen Mullin-Sawicki is working to address as the new president of NHTI is the sometimes negative perception of community college.
“We have a lot of the same opportunities, at a much, much cheaper price tag,” said Mullin-Sawicki. “Yet students are like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go there. I don’t want to start there.’ ”
Mullin-Sawicki sees students at her community college using the same textbooks and learning materials as students attending four-year schools.
Like four-year schools, NHTI has sports teams and residence halls and extracurricular activities. It has not only vocational programming but also programs in theater, art and English.
NHTI has faculty that is competitive with four-year schools and credits earned at NHTI transfer to those schools.
Although NHTI is one-third of the price of in-state tuition at the University of New Hampshire – and a fraction of the cost of an out-of-state or private university – enrollment there, like enrollment at community colleges everywhere, is dropping. NHTI’s enrollment is down around 10% from last fall, Mullin-Sawicki said.
Mullin-Sawicki, who started July 1, has been working since she got to New Hampshire to implement new programs, specifically targeting high school students, creating pathways for them to begin their college education in high school. She is also expanding NHTI’s offerings on evenings and weekends for people who want to go back to school and work at the same time.
Mullin-Sawicki wants to show people the value of community college.
“We’ve got to market ourselves to show the return on investment,” she said. “People are not proud of going to community college the way they should be. You should be proud of the fact that you’re going to a good school. It’s a good education and it’s good value.”
She’s hoping the two-year tuition freeze for all of the state’s community colleges just signed into law will help keep the school accessible. The Community College System of New Hampshire has increased tuition only 2.4 percent over the last eight years, compared to 20 percent at other New England two-year colleges.
NHTI costs roughly $6,500 per year to attend.
Mullin-Sawicki was previously president of multiple campuses of the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, where she also served as interim provost and executive vice president for the college, as well as the dean of academic affairs at one point.
One of the programs she developed was called High School Academies, where students at the local high school would enroll in defined pathways toward specific industries – multi-media or health, for example – and would take classes in those subjects taught by a high school teacher and a faculty liaison from the community college.
This became one of the fastest-growing enrollment avenues for the school.
Mullin-Sawicki said her own son enrolled in this program and earned an associate’s degree by the 11th grade.
She said she’s hoping it’s a program that can work in tandem with the Concord Regional Technical Center. She said she and other educators at NHTI are in the process of researching which careers would be of interest to students to start offering courses.
Mullin-Sawicki said she wants to build more connections for students on campus. She calls this generation of students “the lonely generation.”
“I don’t know if it’s because of technology or something else, but we have found that our students, the younger students particularly, are a lonely generation,” she said. “We’re trying to find ways to really engage and connect them.”
One way Mullin-Sawicki accomplished that in Pennsylvania was by creating a Single Point of Contact (SPOC) retention program which connects all first-time students with “administrator navigators,” who work with students one-on-one to remove obstacles to graduation. This program increased retention 14% from fall 2016 to fall 2018, she said.
Mullin-Sawicki said another idea she has is to create a “lunch bunch” with administrators and student ambassadors, where students who are eating alone will be encouraged to join a group conversation.
She is in the process of creating a food pantry on campus for students who are living with food insecurity.
NHTI is unique in that it offers a community life that many community colleges do not – NHTI has residence calls, and therefore has on-site mental health counselors and residence hall advisors for a support system.
“There’s a lot to offer here if students take those opportunities,” she said.
She says she thinks part of the stigma attached to community college has to do with the fact that the schools are open access – anyone can get in.
“Four-year colleges are all about getting in,” she said. “Parents talk about, ‘Where did your child get in?” For students, it’s that allure of, ‘They wanted me.’ It makes them feel special.”
Mullin-Sawicki said she’s working to develop scholarships at NHTI to help attract students and give them that same sense of accomplishment.
Other programs she’s initiating involve reaching out to working adults and connecting with alumni in industry to increase internship and apprenticeship opportunities for students.
Mullin-Sawicki, who holds dual citizenship from the U.S. and Canada, began her educational career in New York as a program director for the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.
She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in English literature and has taught as an adjunct English faculty in Toronto, Canada; Tokyo, Japan; and Pittsburgh, Penn. teaching English classes in online and on-site environments.
NHTI, Concord’s community college, serves nearly 5,000 students annually.