Evelyn Jorgenson wants Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville to have all sorts of beautiful buildings.
The college, now the largest two-year institution in the state after reporting enrollment of 7,761 in 2016, hopes to break ground on an auxiliary campus in Springdale and recently opened Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food at a renovated Tyson Foods plant on Eighth Street in Bentonville.
Jorgenson said NWACC has plans for a building for its construction technology program on campus, as well.
If all goes according to plan, those buildings will attract more students from across the state and region and, in the case of Brightwater, the nation. Then, Jorgenson said, it might be time to think about adding dormitories on campus so those students can enjoy a true college experience.
In March, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 556 into law. The act, sponsored by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, allows community and technical colleges to build and operate dorms on campus.
Jorgenson said it is a promising idea for NWACC, but just an idea for now. NWACC has enough building plans to keep it busy for the next few years but, down the road, who knows?
“Dorms are almost going to be much less expensive than apartments, particularly as rent goes up in this area,” Jorgenson said. “If we really have the regional and national draw to Brightwater that we think we will have, then there will be students who want to attend Brightwater who will need a place to stay. As we have these magnet programs, it may serve us well to have dorms.”
Jorgenson, who recently celebrated her fourth anniversary as president of NWACC, said the beautiful buildings are tools to fulfill the college’s mission.
“You build buildings for the purpose of helping students be successful,” Jorgenson said. “I feel good about the last four years. I really feel we built … what’s really hard for the public to see. The public can see buildings. They see Brightwater and think, ‘Oh that’s wonderful.’
“What they don’t see are things like a work environment where there is mutual support and trust. It’s a good place to work and to be. I work really hard to have a good work environment because, gosh, you can get so much more accomplished.”
Tops After Drops
The new Washington County Center in Springdale, just west of Arvest Ballpark alongside Interstate 49, is expected to cost more than $15 million, of which the school has raised $3.6 million. Jorgenson said she is confident the college will break ground in 2018 for the campus, which will host an expansion of NWACC’s nursing program.
Jorgenson said the new construction will allow NWACC to expand its nursing program from 40 to 80. The program had more than 300 applicants last year.
The Washington County Center will also serve as home base for NWACC’s scattered teaching classrooms, which are now held at a variety of places in Washington County that include a Springdale strip mall and Farmington High School.
Northwest Arkansas Community College became the state’s largest two-year institution in 2015 when it had fall enrollment of 7,744. It surpassed Pulaski Technical College, renamed the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College after its merger with the University of Arkansas System in February.
Pulaski Tech had enrollment of nearly 12,000 in 2011 and 2012 when NWACC’s enrollment was 8,528 and 8,341. NWACC’s enrollment decline has been less dramatic than that of its North Little Rock counterpart.
Nationwide, enrollment at two-year colleges in the spring semester of 2017 was 5.4 million, a 2.5 percent drop from a year earlier. Enrollment decreases in previous years were 3.3 percent and 4.8 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
NWACC doesn’t rely only on degree-seeking students; it also offers courses for certifications and credits for high school students. Lisa Anderson, executive director of planning, effectiveness and public relations, said two-thirds of NWACC’s students are part time and the college served more than 16,600 students in the 2015-16 academic year.
Jorgenson believes NWACC’s enrollment will increase after the completion of the Washington County Center because she regularly hears from prospective students (and their parents or guardians) about the inaccessibility of the Bentonville campus because of distance, traffic or other issues. Having a campus in Springdale, NWACC officials have said, could increase enrollment by 1,000 to 2,000 students.
Part of Jorgenson’s optimism is fueled by the economic and population engine that is northwest Arkansas.
“If you think about the area we’re located in, it’s expanding,” Jorgenson said. “We flattened in terms of enrollment for a couple of years, but the last three semesters it has been up again. Statewide and nationwide, community college enrollment flattened after the recession, but there was an unusual spike because of the Great Recession that would have normally not been there. The area is growing, so the enrollment is growing again.
“The beauty of community colleges is we are able to take a variety of students at different levels and listen to what their needs are, try to understand where they want to go in life and then nourish that. It’s not just the 18-year-olds who don’t know what they want to do. Sometimes you get people with second careers or people coming back out of the military or all kinds of reasons.”
NWACC’s construction technology program is designed to help fill the area’s need for skilled construction workers, and the college also has an ironworkers apprenticeship program. Those are examples of the college working hand in hand with northwest Arkansas’ industries.
“The cool thing about them is they have that separate workforce education component which is not bound by a lot of the things that the academic side is bound by,” said Mike Harvey, COO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “They can be pretty nimble and flexible and adapt to the employers. They just have to figure out what it is. What they’re doing is responding to where the [job] growth is in this economy … .
“It’s the ultimate kind of front door to careers.”
Jorgenson knows that, firsthand. She earned an associate’s degree from a two-year college in Missouri before earning her master’s and doctorate from the University of Missouri in Columbia.
“We’re working with a big variety of people with a big variety of desires, wants and needs,” Jorgenson said. “We’re working miracles here. It’s magic.”