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College Presence in Sandpoint Continues to Grow

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Walk on to the Sandpoint “campus” of North Idaho College and it’s almost old-home week. Faces familiar from various organizations and businesses around town are seen delving into books on philosophy and mathematics while others practice speeches or determine the intricacies of developing a PowerPoint presentation. As North Idaho College—the region’s two-year community college—has expanded its presence into the northern counties its student body has grown. Or maybe as its student body has grown, NIC has expanded its presence into the north. It’s hard to tell which is the horse, and which is the cart. But continuing to offer more programs, “is our goal and objective,” explained Mark Browning, NIC vice president for community relations and marketing.

Traditionally, community colleges have seen enrollments increase in times of economic difficulty thanks to their more affordable tuition costs. Resident tuition costs at NIC for a full-time student (12 to 16 credits) are just $1,423 per semester, compared to $3,106 per semester at the University of Idaho. These rates are especially attractive when the economy falters, and unemployed and under-employed residents often look to college as a way of gaining more marketable skills.

Long a dream of area residents, efforts to bring college classes into Sandpoint came to fruition over ten years ago, when a limited number of classes were made available downtown, in the back portion of the Ink Well building. Growth continued, and the college expanded out into Ponderay at the Bonner Mall, before opening its doors last fall in the Sandpoint Events Center, the beautifully refurbished old Sandpoint High School. 

“I think the new facility is conducive to learning,” said Mark. “We are literally in a school building now and the facility itself is just beautiful.”

A physical building, however, is just one piece of a larger picture in how college classes are delivered today. Unseen are the numbers of students who are hooking up online, despite the area’s low bandwidth speeds, and working their way though course offerings over the Internet. Today, NIC offers as many classes that are web-enhanced or online as it offers in a traditional classroom setting, and a growing number of students are signing up for dual credit classes in high school, earning college credit even before receiving their high school diploma.

Yet many of the students taking those classes are non-traditional as well. There was a time when most students in college arrived there right after graduating high school, but more and more NIC is seeing an older face on its students. “That’s where the growth is in education right now,” Mark said. “It’s in people like us.”

Despite the strides made in offering classes to students in Bonner County, the college is still looking to do more. Currently, they’re working on funding a “wet lab” for science classes in the area. Once this goal is met, a student will be able to obtain an Associate’s degree from North Idaho College without ever setting foot on the college’s Coeur d’Alene campus.

The college is also looking to provide more classes online, especially as it grows ever more difficult for first year students to get into the entry level classes they need. A surprising stumbling block? A lack of teachers. “We require all of our teachers to hold a Master’s degree in the subject area they teach,” Mark explained. “So when there’s a lack of available teachers, we have to ask ourselves if we want to lower our standards. And the decision has been no, we want to maintain the standards we’ve developed.”

NIC’s future will undoubtedly be influenced as well by the recent phenomenon of the MOOC—Massive Open  Online Courses, offered at no charge to the student, that give people all over the world the opportunity to take classes from some of the top universities in the nation, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Duke University and even MIT. Online MOOC aggregators like Coursera, Udacity and EdX are already enrolling millions of students in high quality college courses, though currently, those courses do not count as a credit toward a degree. The Stanford-based Coursera, however, is working with the American Council of Education to develop certification for the courses it offers, and the vision is that students soon be able to obtain their college credits via a MOOC. There is no question the MOOC model will make big changes in higher education, but as yet, there is no answer as to what those changes will look like. Which is why NIC is keeping a close eye on developments in the field. “Our president (at NIC) is currently taking a MOOC course,” Mark explained, and added that staff are actively looking at ways to bring the benefits of MOOCs under the NIC umbrella to its Idaho community. 

Finding ways to partner with MOOCs is really no different than the active and close partnerships NIC already enjoys with both the University of Idaho and Lewis Clark State College. The two four-year universities partner well with NIC in ways to make a Bachelor’s degree easier to obtain for North Idaho residents. “There’s no competition between us,” Mark said. “Instead, we have all said we see the need (for more accessible education in North Idaho) and we’re all on board to make it happen.” And to make a lot of it happen in Sandpoint, where Mark credits strong support from businesses, individuals and civic leaders in achieving that goal. “I’m both encouraged and humbled by that,” he said.

It’s obvious from its rapid growth that the stars have aligned for higher education in North Idaho, and offerings will only continue to grow—as, it’s likely, will the number of students looking to fill out the class roster. 

If you’d like to learn more about the opportunities available through North Idaho College, visit their website at www.NIC.edu or drop by the Sandpoint Center during the week to talk with NIC staffers. And don’t think these prospects are only for those looking to obtain a degree. NIC offers several professional certification programs, and classes at a per credit charge for those seeking only to learn new skills or update information in key job areas. Senior citizens can take non-credit classes for just $25 a class, and there are dozens of classes available designed to meet the educational needs of business owners and other professionals.

If you believe, along with Oscar Wilde, that a person can never be overeducated, then North Idaho College can help you with program offerings designed to fit your life here in the North Country.

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Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, Sandpoint, North Idaho College, higher education, Sandpoint Center, MOOCs, online education

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