As efforts to address area workforce development needs have ramped up in recent years, the need for Keene State College’s involvement in those efforts has been clear. Already one of the region’s leading economic drivers through the students and visitors it brings to Keene, the employment it provides and the cultural vibrancy and diversity it adds, the college can also play an important role in educating and connecting emerging graduates to area employers, who are increasingly challenged to find workers in the region with the requisite skill sets and training.
For this reason, among others, it’s been of great concern to the region as well as to the college itself as it has struggled with severe financial challenges that resulted in significant belt-tightening, restructuring, right-sizing — pick your preferred corporate-speak term — brought on by a number of factors, but most starkly manifested in a severe drop in enrollment. In a state whose support for public higher education is appallingly parsimonious, each fewer enrolled student has a magnified effect on Keene State’s bottom line. And with the enrollment drop of about a third that the college has experienced since 2009, it was natural to wonder what effect the cutbacks that began in 2017 would have not only on the college but also on its role as a catalyst for area workforce development.
Heartening indeed, then, were two recent developments confirming that despite the challenges of its restructuring, progress continues at Keene State to the benefit of area workforce development. First was the news that after three years on probation, the nursing program had gained full approval from the state’s Board of Nursing. Achieving this required improvements in a number of areas, including meeting or exceeding national pass rates on the registered-nurse licensing test, updating curriculum and raising admission and grade standards. And although the number of students currently enrolled is relatively small — it has grown to 20 this year, heading toward the current program cap of 24 — area hospitals and other health care providers stand to benefit from proximity to those students while they’re in the program and as they enter the workforce.
Also encouraging was word this week that the college continues to press ahead with plans to start an on-campus hub for collaboration with area businesses. The initiative — to be called the Monadnock Business Partnership Hub — had been in line to receive funding under Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget, but its prospects seemed in jeopardy when that funding was pulled from the budget eventually enacted last month.
Fortunately, discussions with the city and Monadnock Economic Development Corp. have identified alternatives, notably from the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, that might provide funding, allowing planning for the hub to continue. As described by Keene State President Melinda Treadwell, plans for the hub currently contemplate a makerspace — that is, space with technology, tools and equipment in an environment encouraging innovation and collaboration — and also technology-enhanced classrooms, all in a facility where companies and students could work together in a variety of ways.
Initially, the hub will focus on precision manufacturing and product design — springboarding off an existing college program developed in partnership with Moore Nanotechnology Systems of Swanzey and BAE Systems, but Treadwell says the vision is for it to expand into other industries. An opening date of fall 2021 is targeted.
Keene State College has taken significant — and difficult — steps to address its new normal. Even so, challenges remain, as indicated by current-year enrollment hovering at the bottom end of enrollment targets set when the restructuring began in 2017. In this environment, the college deserves credit for the re-emergence of its nursing program from the probationary wilderness and for pushing ahead with plans for the collaborative business hub. They not only enhance the college’s academic offerings and broaden its appeal in ways that may boost enrollment. They also offer the promise of energizing area workforce development when it, too, very much needs a boost.