BY ANNE STANTON
— TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College is set to become the state’s first community college to offer its own fully accredited bachelor’s degree.
The college officially learned this week that its request to offer a bachelor’s of science in maritime technology was approved by the Higher Learning Commission’s Institutional Actions Council.
NMC plans to award its first bachelor’s degree in January, said Jerry Achenbach, superintendent of NMC’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy.
“That’s because we have some cadets who have already completed coursework equivalent to what is required,” he said. “That is why the accreditation went so quickly. We’ve been effectively a four-year degree program for so many years. The maritime associate’s degree was already 116 credits, and the bachelor’s degree is 120 credits. It was not a huge leap.”
The academy prepares college students to become merchant marine officers and business professionals around the world. Classes range from seamanship, navigation and piloting to steam and diesel engineering. Class time includes 300 sailing days on NMC’s State of Michigan and/or a commercial boat, Achenbach said.
To get a merchant marine officer license, NMC cadets must also earn a bachelor’s degree at a cost of about $90,000.They now attend Ferris State University through the University Center to earn a bachelor’s degree in business, which will remain an option. About 25 percent of incoming cadets arrive with a bachelor’s degree already in hand, Achenbach said.
The biggest benefit of the accreditation is students will save about $10,000 in college costs and can graduate earlier. That’s because they’ll need a semester less worth of credits, Achenbach said.
Achenbach hopes the cost savings will translate into a higher graduation rate. Right now an average of 40 of the 60 incoming freshmen cadets graduate four years later, he said.
“By far, the biggest reason we lose cadets is finances,” he said. “These are really, really good people. They’re passing classes, and it’s a very tough academy. But in today’s economy, it’s, ‘I’m just out of money, and I can’t afford another semester.’ Or even worse, ‘My mom and dad lost their jobs, and I have to go home.’”
The maritime program — at $372 per credit hour — is NMC’s most expensive, yet graduates can count on lucrative salaries and a 100 percent job placement rate.
“The average salary for graduates is at least $60,000 for those who are six to eight months on sea, and in some cases it’s higher,” Achenbach said. “Industry jobs go anywhere from dinner cruises to super tankers.”
The program also prepares cadets for onshore jobs, but 100 percent of graduates are choosing to go to sea, where job demand and salaries are highest, he said.
“They’ve got student debt, and they want to pay it down as quickly as possible,” Achenbach said.
Up until now, NMC’s maritime academy was the only one in the country that didn’t offer a bachelor’s degree, he said.
“That’s why it’s very important,” Achenbach said. “It puts us on the same level as the six other maritime academies in the nation.”
The NMC maritime academy — the only one located on a freshwater body — is operating at full capacity, with 168 students. There are no current plans for expansion, although Achenbach hopes to welcome back alumni who earned only associate’s degrees.
Community college baccalaureates were made possible when the Michigan legislature approved a bill in December 2012, subsequently signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in January 2013 that authorized the state’s 28 community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in four areas: maritime technology, energy production, culinary and cement technology.