NCI branch decision nears

July 28, 2011

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Aug. 31 is the target date for deciding which university should be chosen to turn the New College Institute (NCI) into a Martinsville branch campus.

A committee led by Virginia Commonwealth University President Emeritus Eugene Trani is evaluating proposals by VCU, Radford University and Virginia State University and meeting with officials from those institutions.

“Hopefully by the end of August, we’ll be able to come to a conclusion on ... who will be the best NCI partner,” Trani told NCI’s board Wednesday.

That does not mean a partnership will be approved then. An agreement will have to be approved not only by NCI’s board, but also by the board of The Harvest Foundation, which helps fund the state-supported institute uptown, and the General Assembly, which will reconvene in January.

The goal is for one of the universities to take over the institute effective July 1, 2012, according to NCI Executive Director Barry Dorsey.

NCI currently offers local access to higher level courses needed to complete requirements for various degrees offered by universities statewide. It is a “2-plus-2” institution — students are expected to have finished their first two years of courses at a community college.

Trani said “an enormous amount of work” has gone into negotiations with the three universities being considered.

George Mason University also submitted a proposal but withdrew it earlier this year due to budget constraints.

“We all feel the passion to move the ball across the goal line” in terms of choosing a university partner, said NCI board Chairman Rob Spilman.

Yet negotiations with universities are “a delicate situation,” Spilman said. He added that a lot of factors are involved, including politics, which he admitted he is not sure he fully comprehends.

Trani has said the evaluation team’s choice of a university will be based on which of the three offers the greatest benefits to the area in terms of ideas for academics, community outreach and economic development.

The university that takes over NCI is to provide at the Martinsville campus degree programs related to education, business, information technology and health — job fields that local leaders have determined would help boost the area’s economy. Other programs also could be offered, officials have said.

Agreements with universities now offering about a dozen degree programs at NCI are to expire in December 2013, Dorsey said. The university acquiring NCI may have to pay those universities to end the programs early, he said.

Some of those programs no longer accept new students at NCI, said Dorsey. Universities offering the programs are committed to finding ways to help students already enrolled finish earning their degrees, he said.

Since it opened five years ago, 244 people have earned degrees through NCI. The number of students enrolled at the institute rose from about 125 in the first academic year to more than 400 in 2009-10 year before decreasing to 327 in the 2010-11 year, statistics show.

Neither Dorsey nor NCI Associate Director Leanna Blevins knew how many students NCI has taught altogether. Such a headcount has not been kept because students generally take two years or more to complete degree requirements, Blevins said.

An enrollment drop was expected, Blevins said, because while prospective students are excited about the possibility of NCI being a university branch campus, they have shown “some reservations” about enrolling now, not knowing exactly what degrees and courses will be offered in the future.

Dorsey predicted that after the university that takes over NCI determines what degrees and courses it will offer, “we’ll have a significant increase in overall enrollment.”

NCI so far has mostly educated adults beyond the traditional college ages of 18 to 24 years who have not been able to leave the area to attend college due to family and job commitments locally, officials have said.

Dorsey said indications are that the pool of such “placebound” students is somewhat drying up and NCI’s future — as a university branch campus or otherwise — lies with attracting traditional-age college students.

Elizabeth Haskell, vice chairman of the NCI board, said it is unrealistic to expect the status quo to continue.

It is important for NCI to work with the chosen university to recruit students from the area and elsewhere, such as through sending recruiters into schools, in time for the 2012-13 academic year, Blevins and Dorsey said.


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