LIMA — Nine years ago, Rhodes State College’s executive board voted to explore building a facility downtown. Two groundbreaking event and one president later, the ground is still bare.
It’s been a long-time coming for the downtown Rhodes project, and while the ground hasn’t been disturbed, there’s been plenty of change at Rhodes as an institution thanks to shifts in educational needs and societal standards.
But have such shifts changed the college’s need for a downtown expansion? Or has the tight job market increased the community’s demand for such a training facility? With less than half a year until officials expect visible progress, those are among the questions people continue to ask.
and a new economy
When Dr. Debra McCurdy became president of Rhodes in 2006, the college was bragging about its jumps in enrollment and celebrating the staff for its commitment to recruitment. By the time she left, the excitement had cooled. So had enrollment.
Like many community colleges across Ohio, full-time enrollment at the Rhodes State College peaked in 2011, and it has been dropping ever since. The Ohio Department of Higher Education reported 3,317 full-time students at the community college in 2011. By 2018, the ODHE reported 2,034 — a drop of 39% within a seven-year-period.
Such changes, however, have been in line with educational trends seen nationally, said Interim President Dr. Cynthia Spiers. Enrollment numbers in secondary education have been slowly dropping since the height of the recession, when many adults went back to school instead of trying to compete in a tough job market. For example, The Ohio State University’s branch campus just next door to Rhodes saw a similar 31% drop over the same time period.
But straight full-time enrollment numbers paint only a portion of the larger picture of today’s education market. Since 2008, the number of adult education students at Rhodes has been cut in half, and the college has begun to rely much more heavily on high school students attending college-credit plus courses and the state dollars that fund such programs to move forward.
Spiers estimates the college has helped students save roughly $1.8 million in tuition by offering such courses to high schoolers, who can earn college credit for free. Such a deal has caused the numbers of students utilizing the program to explode.
In the 2018-2019 school year, Rhodes tracked 2,394 high school students using college-credit plus with the majority attending courses off-campus. But as Spiers explained, such a move has become the norm for community colleges across Ohio.
“We are aligning with the state and national agendas, and the governor is really pushing forward on these workforce agendas,” Spiers said.
An example of Ohio’s move to focus on related workforce development initiatives is a $12 million grant awarded to Ohio’s community colleges by the American Association of Community College. Rhodes has also restructured the workforce development arm of the college by moving engineering, information technology and business courses under an encompassing workforce umbrella to ensure the college can shift to need’s dictated by private industries.
“We’re doing a lot of work in partnering with different institutions and industries to try to meet what they need and adjust the way we deliver so we can meet that need and keep people working in the area,” Spiers said.
In the same way, Spiers said the creation of the downtown Center for Health Science Education Innovation now falls under the state’s larger initiative of workforce development by meeting the needs of local health care industries.
“In our conversations with the health industry, they have been very specific about the types of things that they need. And in some cases, we’ve talked about how we can complement the things that they‘re doing in the hospitals with our new technology we bring forward and the pathways that we will be developing with them so we serve the needs of the health community,” Spiers said.
Michael Bielenberg, a project manager with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, estimates the downtown Rhodes project is sitting at the halfway mark of its design development phase. The base schematics are completed, and the layout of the 50,000-square-foot building has been mostly finalized. Currently, architects are drafting the details — placing doors, outlets and sinks to be within legal guidelines. Mayor David Berger said planners have begun discussions with the city’s building department to ensure movement forward.
Other items needing further deliberation include the exterior design of the building and the parking plan for students. Bielenberg said he expects the college to create some sort of parking lot for the building, and the issue of downtown parking may also be addressed by Downtown Inc.’s recently-approved parking study. Rhodes contributed $2,500 to fund its completion.
Next steps, Bielenberg said, include getting documentation approved by the Ohio Department of Industrial Compliance and creating a biddable set of plans. Spiers expects actual construction to begin in the tail end of 2019 at the earliest.
On the financial side, Spiers said the college already has $14 million available for the project — at least $11 million through the state — and the remainder will be covered by a $10 million line of credit recently approved by the Rhodes board.
“The reason for the line of credit is just to help us ensure that we have the cashflow when we need it for the project,” said Vice President for Finance and Business Russell Litke. “Some of the cash that we have for the project is in the form of pledges that are due to come in over several years.”
A future capital campaign, scheduled to launch within a month or two, should also help bring in more dollars. Executive Director of Development Kevin Reeks said the college is currently reviewing campaign proposals from an outside consultant.
The programs expected to occupy the new center include nursing, physical therapy assistance, occupational therapy assistance, emergency medical services and respiratory care. The programs which will expand into those program’s former places at the main campus are still up in the air.
“We are currently discussing the direction that the college will be going to renovate space and actually advance the type of things that we need to do for the workforce in the community,” Spiers said.“We’re doing a lot of work in partnering with different institutions and industries to try to meet what they need and adjust the way we deliver so we can meet that need and keep people working in the area.”
In the near future, Spiers said the college and its leadership is looking to reinvigorate the college’s relationship to become an integral player in the community, and that the downtown center will be a focal point going forward.
“We’re going to continue to talk about (the college) now — where are we, what’s next. We’re going to have some spectacular technology and simulation, and it will complement some of the things going on in this community,” Spiers said. “We are changing some of the standards right now in order to address who we’re becoming.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.