Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 12, 2012

Our view: Aviation program working


---- — Back in 2004 Northwestern Michigan College was facing tight budgets while also trying to justify why taxpayers were subsidizing two high-profile but high-priced programs — aviation and the maritime academy.

Now, the aviation program is luring students from China, Great Britain and India and expects more. The college said international students will account for about 25 percent of the program's flight hours this year. International students logged about 500 hours last year and the college expects up to 1,500 hours this year.

That's a far cry from the day not so long ago — 2007 — when the college was spending about $350,000 in general fund money to prop up the aviation program. By last year that was down to just $70,000 and should be even lower this year.

NMC President Tim Nelson signed an agreement earlier this month with a Beijing-based group to explore exchange programs and possibly partner on a flight training academy in China. NMC's program is part of a wider movement in which U.S.-based aviation programs are forming international partnerships to train pilots across the globe.

"Our aviation program is very highly respected nationally and internationally," said Andy Dolan, NMC's executive director for public relations and marketing. "The U.S. is the place that, all over world, they look to get trained in aviation."

The agreement between NMC and Beijing Channel Consulting is the first step toward an exchange program that could include a two-week aviation course for Chinese students at NMC and study abroad opportunities for NMC students in China.

In the long term, NMC may help develop a training academy in China.

A decade ago, the aviation program was an odd man out at the college — and a very expensive one. It was a business that was far, far outside the college's core mission and the biggest justification for its existence seemed to be that it had always been there.

There was no real student base — Traverse City was hardly an aviation hub — and students required further training before they could go into commercial aviation jobs; it was the kind of training small private businesses traditionally offered; and it was costing the college a fortune to maintain a fleet of planes.

But in 2007 the college started to turn things around. It agreed to purchase 11 Cessna 72 SP single-engine planes from a downstate firm over a 20-month period at a cost of $2.8 million but with the caveat that the company would buy back all the planes at various times for $2.35 million.

Most importantly, the college put a new focus on managing the program and eventually reduced general fund support to about $70,000.

The college aimed to increase program enrollment by 2014 with roughly 80 new students and three new positions. The program is targeted to grow to 200 students from 120 last year, including those interested in new unmanned aircraft courses and pupils from overseas flight schools wanting cheaper training costs in the U.S.

This is major change in just a few years, and the college deserves credit for turning the program around and successfully luring international students.

The new aviation partnership could help add to those numbers but could also bring NMC revenue by selling its expertise. Anything that goes to the bottom line can only help students.

The college doesn't appear to be in any danger of losing its focus on local students and local programs, and it would be remiss to not take advantage of a growing niche market that can bring in students — particularly those who pay higher out-of-state tuition — and much-needed dollars.