Bootstraps!

How students from Minnesota’s NCTC pulled themselves up and refused to accept closure of their school.


There was no dedicated Part 147 advertising budget at any of the state/public schools, according to the school representatives. Their only advertising consisted of word of mouth, a blip on the college’s web site, and making visits to local high schools on career day.

None of the state/public schools had a tactical or strategic plan in place. A tactical plan is what you are going to do in the current fiscal year; a strategic plan is based on a five-year timeline. Both plans should be constantly updated.

The short and thick of it is this: The state/publically run Part 147 schools from my survey that were in trouble had the same profile: low morale, no advertising budget, and no plan — no wonder they are dropping like flies.

Now what? Should we just turn out the lights and close the door on state/public Part 147 schools and hand the keys over to private industry? No. There is plenty of room for both public and private schools to thrive and prosper in the Part 147 school environment.

But the question is, “Can state/public Part 147 schools meet the challenge?” The answer is yes, and it is happening right now.

Northland Community and Technical College
Enter from stage right, Northland Community and Technical College (NCTC). The college is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Its Part 147 school is located at the Thief River Falls regional airport about 70 miles south of the Canadian border.

Right, some of you are thinking “hick school,” but you would be dead wrong. Take my word for it because I have been there. NCTC’s facility is one of the finest Part 147 schools in the country. It has a total of 85,000 square feet. The large, six-story heated hangar has more than 35,000 square feet and it contains a DC-9, a B-727 up on jacks, and 20 other aircraft from helicopters to fixed-wing single- and multi-engine aircraft. The classrooms and shops are state-of-the-art and it would take $16 million to replace it today.

But in the fall semester of 2007 this Part 147 school that was designed for more than 150 students had a total of 25 full-time students and no part-time ones. In October of that same year, the school president had no choice but to put the Part 147 school on suspended status because it was hemorrhaging money to the tune of $620,000 over the previous fiscal year. In academic talk, when a course is suspended, it means as soon as the 25 students graduate, the school, the facility, and administrative staff are on the street. The school was suffering from the three major problem areas I mentioned: low morale, no advertising budget, and no plan. Worst of all, there was no hope.

Can you possibly imagine the sense of failure that everyone connected with the school from the president right on down to the last one hired must have felt? No one wants to fail, especially when they have a world-class facility. The school had all the exuberance you would find in a fall-out shelter.

Power of public opinion
Then a strange thing happened. Those 25 students, led by a lady student mechanic, got mad. They decided that the school would not close. They said to hell with the odds. They wrote letters, they contacted the local newspapers, and they went on TV. They got the city of Thief River Falls on their side, contacted their state legislators, and through the force of public opinion, asked for and got a review of the decision to close down the school.

The review was done and no one could fault the president’s original decision to close the school due to insufficient funds. Numbers don’t lie, especially those written in red ink. But when politics come into the picture, trust me — that world is not the same reality that you and I live in. Faced with an aroused public opinion, the Chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities granted a financial booster shot that sustained the program as the college planned for its survival. The booster-shot was a $100,000 Band-Aid over a sucking chest wound. The school was still bleeding money but the extra money eliminated the need for a toe tag. It bought time!

We Recommend