Six months after Keene State College welcomed a community college onto its campus, the two institutions say their partnership is well underway.
River Valley Community College settled in last August after leaving its former home on Washington Street, finalizing plans that were in talks for more than a year.
The Claremont-based community college, which also has a branch in Lebanon, enrolls about 150 students in Keene. River Valley pays rent to use Keene State’s facilities, including offices in the Cheshire House at 67 Winchester St. and classrooms on campus, primarily in the Putnam Science Center and Rhodes Hall.
River Valley President Alfred Williams explained that the community college uses the Cheshire House as a hub for student services, with the registrar’s office, a computer lab and meeting spaces for faculty. Tutoring is also available in the building, he added.
Keene State President Melinda Treadwell said the partnership involved an early commitment to maintaining River Valley’s separate identity on campus, and the administration’s presence in the Cheshire House has solidified that.
The partnership is symbiotic in myriad ways, from cost-sharing to increased access to classes and services for students of both colleges.
Treadwell said the community college is helping Keene State better utilize its classrooms and dining facilities, which comes at a time when Keene State’s enrollment has been in decline. River Valley pays to use spaces that would otherwise sit empty, and in return its students can use higher quality classrooms and facilities than what was available in its old Washington Street building.
Keene State also benefits from programs offered by River Valley that the area wouldn’t otherwise have. Treadwell said she was getting feedback from elder care facilities and hospitals across the state, and particularly in this region, that needed nurses with credentials offered by River Valley, such as registered nurses, rather than Keene State’s baccalaureate pre-licensure program.
It’s critical to respond to the region’s workforce needs, she said, and it made sense to do so by opening up campus buildings and help another college answer that call.
Williams said River Valley’s licensed practical nurse, or LPN, program was approved by the N.H. Board of Nursing in December and will be offered to Keene students next year.
“If we were still on Washington Street, we would’ve really struggled with the space to be able to do that. So now we’re gonna be able to have LPN graduates in the Keene area, where there’s a very high demand for those graduates to go to work.”
River Valley also has a licensed nursing assistant, or LNA, program that’s pending approval by the state board, Williams said.
Both presidents nodded to the increased visibility River Valley gets from its association and colocation with Keene State, as well as the opportunity for the latter to reach community college students who might not otherwise consider a bachelor’s degree.
The two colleges have also been working on a joint effort to improve the presentation of course information to students, which the presidents say would raise awareness of how a transfer between the institutions would work.
Typically the university and community college systems work alongside one another to map out the pathways that students follow through graduation, Treadwell said, but this coordination did not equate to a cooperative effort. Community and four-year colleges had their own set of steps for students.
“We’re co-creating a single map now that kind of seamlessly shows how River Valley and Keene State curriculum coexist,” Treadwell said, “so it’s a very different way to think about the student experience from the place of entry, regardless of where they enter, what are their options.”
Williams said the biggest advantage to students, who can already transfer their credits, will be seeing a clear explanation on paper how that transition would work, without having to calculate or jump through hoops. Removing the uncertainty and the guesswork can be powerful, he said.
For instance, Treadwell explained, Keene State uses a four-credit-per-class system versus River Valley’s three-credit system. The goal is to make it as clear as possible to students how it works and to forge agreements with additional community colleges to widen the impact.
“It’s really embracing that learner-centered model, where we’re not asking them to navigate our systems. We’re translating our systems to them,” she said.
Treadwell said taking the time to work with students on their level is crucial for higher education institutions, which are facing declining enrollment and changing demographics across the country and especially in the Northeast, but also for the students. She said data have shown that post-secondary education affects career advancement, health outcomes, community wellness and lifetime earnings, so removing barriers to getting a degree is a top priority.
Both presidents agreed that four-year and community colleges shouldn’t view each other as competitors. Treadwell said their mutual interests are better served by collaborating to focus on needs closer to home, such as the decline in New Hampshire high school graduates who are pursuing post-secondary education.
Williams asserted that the two colleges attract more students while working together.
Because the partnership is just a few months old, Treadwell said, it’s too soon to know how many students will eventually transfer from River Valley to Keene State. But there’s already one who was touted as a success story of the collaboration — “a rockstar out of biology,” according to Treadwell.
Williams credited the relationships that have developed between River Valley and Keene State faculty.
As far as he knows, Williams said the partnership between the two colleges is the first in the state, so there are plenty of eyes watching how it all unfolds in Keene.
Treadwell said they’re eager to continue their work and help other institutions follow suit.
“We are creating opportunities to make a positive improvement in the rural economies of our state,” she said. “That is what we should and must be doing, and I think it is the most important work that I’m the most proud of since coming back to Keene.”