EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 9, 2012

Editorial: NECC is the not-so-little engine that could

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — La Sierra. Catawba. Clark Atlanta. Lawrence Technological. Johnson C. Smith.

Ever hear of them? Neither had we until we read a September usnews.com story about colleges whose students graduate with the most debt.

La Sierra, Catawba, Clark Atlanta, Lawrence Technological and Johnson C. Smith are the top five.

Their classes of 2011 left with diplomas encumbered by more than $45,000 in debt on average -- more than $50,000 in the case of the top two.

A college degree was once a ticket to success. Now, for too many, it’s a ticket to mommy and daddy’s basement, a dead-end job and a college IOU that won’t go away.

Combined U.S. college debt now tops $1 trillion. The average graduate of a 4-year school owes more than $26,00 -- $27,700 in Massachusetts and a tops-in-the-nation $32,400 in New Hampshire, according to an October report by The Project on Student Debt.

The debt that burdens educated 20-somethings has become a huge drag on the economy. Students who owe $30,000, $40,000 or more, especially those with unmarketable degrees, can barely afford an apartment shared with roommates, let alone a family of their own, a house or a car.

Fortunately, more high school graduates and their families are becoming savvy about the true cost -- and value -- of a college degree

One local piece of evidence is the growing interest in Northern Essex Community College and other two-year schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire

As we reported last month, NECC’s enrollment grew 5 percent this academic year, the highest rate of growth among the Bay State’s 15 community colleges.

After 50 years, NECC’s campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence are populated by the full-time equivalent of 4,500 students. NECC started with fewer than 200 students all those years ago.

Obviously, NECC is doing something right, and it’s clear what that is. The mission of the community college is to prepare two-year students to enter the working world with marketable skills or to transfer to four-year colleges, in either case without being weighed down with the staggering debt that might stunt their young lives and careers.

While NECC serves students from Southern New Hampshire and the Seacoast as well as the Merrimack Valley, a significant factor in the growth of its enrollment is the increase in the number of Hispanic students, who now represent 34 percent of student population.

This is important. Without the influx of immigrants to this region, largely Hispanic, our population would be in decline, not exactly a recipe for economic growth. It is critical to our future to integrate these new residents into our workforce and community, something NECC has done superbly.

NECC has become the not-so-little college that could -- an engine for the local economy, not a drag on it.

NECC has reason to be proud of its growth, and this region has reason to be proud of NECC.