Sunday Sit-Down: WVNCC President Martin Olshinsky

— Education reform has been at the forefront of conversations of state and national issues. What role do you see community colleges playing as American education changes?

Olshinsky: Well, the whole dynamic of community colleges … has really focused on jobs and getting people into the work force quickly, and I think … the emphasis now makes it easier for us to do it. Historically, it’s been more difficult. Everybody wants the four-year model, and that’s what the world accepted. … We’re looking at all sorts of ways to get people back into the work force, retrained, and there’s a large amount of folks now that are 50-plus, that they’re not quite ready for retirement or can’t retire yet, and they need to find outlets and not dedicate a four-year stint (at a university.) They want to know, ‘What can I do in 18 months or less?’ And community colleges are starting to serve that role even more. We have always done it, but now we’re getting more recognition for it. And I think if you listen to the president of the United States and a few others, they mention community colleges quite a bit because they’re at the forefront of making that change as far as economic development.

— What are three or four things you’ve been most proud of during your time here?

Olshinsky: We could easily jump right away to the buildings that we’ve added in terms of the technology center and soon-to-open Barnes & Noble bookstore and student union. Also in Weirton we put in a technology center, too. … Those are quite obvious ones and probably have impact in the community quite a bit as far as the institution. But I would say other than that really what we’ve done is, for example, is we’ve started a high school here, we’re going into our fifth year now. And the high school is for students that need new options. For whatever reason, these students are bright high school students but they just can’t make it in the high school, and we bring them to the college campus and they seem to flourish. Our latest reports show us really making major strides with them.

And I would think the other aspect that we’ve really enhanced is looking at servicing this community a lot more. When I first entered the doors of this institution, everybody was talking about secrets, this is the best kept secret, the stuff you really don’t want to hear, to be honest with you. You want to know, this is not secret, we’re here, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. And I think the whole area has recognized that Northern is a force in the valley to make change. It’s a force that helps all the people that we can be successful, so for me, it’s that community college image.

— What about challenges?

Olshinsky: Oh, there’s lots of challenges. The challenges are coming from all directions. The federal government has done some things with financial aid, for example, and the challenge there is the new restrictions have impacted Northern in that the money flow for grants and financial aid in general is not there because the restrictions are there now. Students have to do certain steps, they have to be in a certain … program – things like that.

Also the state. The state has cut our budget by 7.5 (percent) this coming fiscal year. Projections are they’ll cut another 7.5 (percent), and what that means to Northern is about a $1.2 million loss. How’s that made up? Here’s where the problem comes in – it’s made up by no other source than tuition increases, although we’re very low. You only have two sources of revenue: You have the ones from the state, which is your allocation, and tuition. You do have grants, and we do have our share of grants, but the allocations being cut, somehow that difference has to be made up. And Northern is very lean and our tuition is very low, so that’s a challenge. …

The other is, in the state of West Virginia, making sure there is a knowledge amongst legislators about what community colleges are and what they do. It’s different because almost everybody seems like they graduate from WVU or Marshall and, no offense to any of that, but they don’t understand community colleges as well. A community college’s mission is different. Community colleges have a mission that separates us, and we generally can’t be measured in the same way that four year (institutions) can.

A good example might be if you look at a four-year (university) folks (they) come in, they’re lock stepped, generally they stay for the full year, and then the next year they come back. Community colleges, we have drop-in, drop-out students. We have multiple starts. So when they go to look at us in terms of data, it gets confusing to them because there’s a four-year census date … I put more students in after census date than I do at the census date, just because of what we’re trying to do.

— What role do you see West Virginia Northern playing in Wheeling’s future?

Olshinsky: Well, a close vision is the buildings we put up and made the area look more aesthetically pleasing. We’re hoping that spurs others to say, ‘Why can’t we do this?’ or, ‘There’s a potential business opportunity there.’ So, I would hope between what we’re doing and (Wheeling) Jesuit up the street, that there would be some activity generated that would help say, OK, it’s time for us to renovate to look at how can we get new businesses. Because any area like this, small business is the key, so we want to help stimulate that.

We’re also looking at these buildings, as well as the one in Weirton, to help fill a gap here in terms of – Northern for the longest time has had a higher female population than male. And the reason being most of ours were in allied health, because that’s what we had facilities for.

Now with this shift (to petroleum technology), we suspect we’ll get more male population in and we have a lot of females in these programs, too, but I’m looking for a more blended mix. And, there’s a lot of job opportunities out there. … We’re just a small piece of it, but I think we’re going to be able to do some generation of jobs that are in demand here.

The folks that took our mechatronics up in Weirton … went to ArcelorMittal for their apprenticeship. Arcelor paid them a nice apprenticeship salary, and out of that group all of them were hired except one, and that was by choice. He decided he’s going to wait and do something different. …

Longer term I’m thinking Northern needs to look at our role in making this area more vibrant. And you may say, ‘Well, what can a community college do?’ Well, besides what we just did with buildings, we’re in a lot of community events. We’re in all sorts of activities that make a community feel like it has life, and we want to just be a part of that. Our mission includes community outreach, and we just want to make sure that’s part of what we’re doing and doing it well. And I think long-term, Northern’s role here will be hopefully one of getting this community more energized … especially when you have young people coming in we ought to be able to offer them something in this area.

— You’ve pointed to a couple of things happening in Weirton, what’s the state of things at the New Martinsville campus?

Olshinsky: New Martinsville has a population issue … there’s not enough population down there to sustain it. We’re working on some projects now to see if we can help the area. The petroleum technology, for example, in Wetzel County you have a lot of opportunities with the oil and gas industry. Some of those folks, though, need training, and how do we do that? We have Dominion, which is just up the road … looking for people. … How do we get them ready? So our goal in New Martinsville is to look at new markets. We’re also looking at ways that New Martinsville can better serve its high school population, too. Is there ways that we missed or can we improve upon them. Right now there’s not enough student population to justify building an annex on. But we can watch it over time.

— Can you talk about the Middle College program that you have for teenagers?

Olshinsky: Sure. The Middle College program is for teenagers, grades 10th, 11th and 12th. It’s in its fifth year. … At Weirton its just started this year, so it’s brand new. It’s designed for students that have difficulty in the regular high school. And when I say that, it’s not that, you know, they’re violent or anything. They’ve either been bullied, they’re quiet, they blend in, so they’re not meeting their full potential.

These are bright kids. All of them are very bright. So we take them out of that environment, and we put them on a college campus and give them guidance-based instructors. And by that I mean they actually are mentors. They really work with these students, and they know exactly where their shortcomings are, in terms of either academics or even personality. And they work to bring those around.

And the other piece to it is, they’re on a college campus so they’re with adults and responsibility shifts. The slogan for that group is that ‘you’re the sum of your choices your life is the sum of your choices.’

Data-wise, they’ve improved tremendously. They’ve gone, on average here, from a 1.8 grade point average when they come to us to this year it came up to 3.0. They’re getting away from having to take developmental courses. This year 256 college credits earned. So the first year we opened, it was 83 credits, now it’s 256, so you can see the progression. They’re very interested now in, ‘OK, where’s my career? Where am I going? What am I going to be doing?’ And that’s what we’re trying to do.

… This is a nationwide project. Middle colleges are everywhere. In West Virginia we have the first middle college … we had to do something because these students would be lost.

— West Virginia Northern has offered programs such as health care training, culinary arts, table gambling classes and now you’re moving toward programs that will help people in the natural gas industries. What other fields do you expect to see demand in in the coming years?

Olshinsky: We have a grant for physical therapy assistant. Our problem there is finding the right instructor but we’re working on that. … The trending is hard to predict. If you notice the gas and oil, it came in and in a … relatively short period of time the whole dynamic shifted. As a community college, we have to be ready to do that.

— There’s been some talk from college officials about how Northern is expanding things such as self-paced and accelerated learning and online courses. Where do you see those initiatives going for Northern?

Olshinsky: The reality is you’re not in a world where we have the same old education that a lot of us went through, where there was somebody standing in the front of the room lecturing to you. You’d write your notes, you put them up here, and then you give them back. That pretty much has gone away. So as an institution, we’ve made those changes to start looking at how do we reach the new student the new customer, if you will. Students who come in and get into the basic developmental math or the basic English, they get frustrated real fast because you’re spending your time there and you really want to be a nurse or in radiology. So what we are attempting to do is get them through that piece real fast.

They still know it. The math labs, for example, these are self-paced math. We’ve had people, this is an extreme but I’ll share: There are three layers of math generally, that students go through. And one lady who is a returning house wife was able to go through all three layers in one semester. If she had not had that opportunity, she would have been in beginning developmental one semester; next semester another layer; next semester another layer. So you can see where the frustration comes from, and we’re trying to eliminate those frustrations.

We’re a community college, so therefore we’re open door and that’s good, that’s the mission of community colleges but it also comes with some liabilities in that not everybody should go to college. Not everybody’s prepared to go to college. And we have to help folks make those decisions before they get too far in. We have a Title III grant that allows us to go and hire more people so when they come in, they’re talking to people right up front. They have to know what they’re getting into. They have to know what their obligations and responsibilities are. And then, at the end, we have more retention and graduation.

— City Council recently approved opening Market Street to two-way traffic to allow for some of the changes you’ve been making. Do you see any additional changes coming as a result of expansion or when your get your new buildings open?

Olshinsky: Probably not. The city’s been very good to us in making changes, even parking changes and meter changes on 17th Street. Our goal here is probably only one more project, and it should not involve any street or any changes as far as traffic flow.

— One last question. For the second year in a row, the U.S. Department of Education revealed that West Virginia Northern is among the 100 two-year public institutions with the lowest net prices of attendance in the country. How have you achieved that, and how can you continue to offer that kind of value to your students?

Olshinsky: Actually, we’ve been very judicious at looking at staffing, because in most institutions, all higher ed, most of your costs are around people. And how do we service our students and not cut them short, but not pad it too much. And over the years, Northern has been very lean on personnel. There’s good and bad in that, but we have been very careful on how we staff our institution.

I think the other piece is, we’ve been able to work with moving funds and setting them aside. It’s not something that happened overnight, we’ve set aside for our rainy day, and that has accumulated. We’ve been trying to keep tuition down for many reasons, most obvious of course is we want to keep the student happy. Community colleges in general, you’re not going to come out with a lot of debt and you’re probably going to get a job. So, keeping it low is just matter of good business, too. The average student can save about $22,000 on their first two years.

We did raise our tuition this time, but for us that tuition raise will only amount to about $6 per credit. We try to keep a balance so we’re not over charging, we’re not padding anything, and at the same time we’re sustaining ourselves.