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LLTC marks high enrollment, prepares for reaccreditation

Ginny Carney, president of Leech Lake Tribal College, speaks on the college's high student enrollment numbers during a Sept. 3 interview. Carney has been president of LLTC since December 2009. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Now entering its 20th year, Leech Lake Tribal College reported its highest student enrollment ever.

Leech Lake Tribal College President Ginny Carney said 267 students enrolled this semester. As Carney prepares for the college to apply for continuing accreditation, she said she hopes the increase in numbers will be viewed favorably by the accreditation team.

"We're ready," Carney said of the accreditation process. "It's always a little bit anxiety-producing to see if we meet all the qualifications, but we believe that we do."

From Oct. 4-6, a review team from the North Central Association will meet with Carney and other administration to study the college's governing documents, strategic plans, marketing information, student enrollment, academic standards and other materials.

In the coming months after their visit, the team will prepare a comprehensive written report about the college for a Higher Learning Commission review committee, which will make recommendations to the Institution Actions Council. The council will assess the recommendations and act on accreditation. Its decision will go before the Higher Learning Commission Board of Trustees for validation.

In 2006, Leech Lake Tribal College received accreditation for five years. In Minnesota, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minn., and White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen are accredited colleges. Red Lake Tribal College in Red Lake is not yet accredited.

According to Carney, when she started at the college as a teacher in 2001, there were about 78 students enrolled. Today that number has more than tripled.

Accreditation and new facilities are two big reasons for the student enrollment increase, Carney said.

Before the college received accreditation, Carney said the community viewed the college as the "laughing stock of the community."

"When I came here it wasn't accredited, and we didn't have very desirable buildings," she said. "The community just didn't see that it was making a difference."

Today, she said, the community's view of the college has changed.

"I believe we've become very central to the community," she said. "Most families are very pro-education. That's a huge change."

Leech Lake Tribal College, established in 1991 by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, started as an institution divided among five buildings in downtown Cass Lake. Today, the college is located northwest of Cass Lake, off of Cass County Road 75, and classes are held in two buildings built less than eight years ago. The two classroom wings are part of a long-term plan to build a larger campus.

While a higher student enrollment means increased tuition revenue, challenges still lie ahead for a college that relies on 70 percent of its funding received from grants and 12 percent from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

"The economy certainly hasn't improved here," Carney said referring to the economic climate of rural Minnesota and Cass Lake. "We've written more grants and tried to adapt to the economic climate the best we can."

In 2008, when student enrollment was at about 250, the college faced a budget cut, resulting in the work hours and pay for up to 25 full-time employees reduced from 40 hours to 32 hours per week.

Carney said when she started working at the college almost 10 years ago, there were about 11 fulltime staff employed. Today, she said 16 fulltime staff and 12 adjunct staff are employed at the college.

If the trend in student enrollment continues, Carney said, more facilities will be needed.

"We'll have to build," she said. "We'll have to raise funds for construction. We're already outgrowing our space."

For the time being, Carney said, the college is prepared for more students and said it's her goal as president to continue to recruit more students.

"This is a small community," Carney said. "We don't have dormitories. Everybody commutes to school. Transportation is a problem, but we believe we can increase enrollment each year."

In 2007 LLTC unveiled its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics summer internship program, also known as STEM. Carney said since then STEM courses have become very popular.

The college now offers an associate degree in natural science.

Carney said the college has seen an increase in student demand for the the early childhood education program.

Two years ago the program had dropped to only four students and was put into latency.

"We hired a highly qualified director of the program and she reported 58 students enrolled in the program this fall," Carney said.

Today more native and non-native students are enrolling in the tribal college, a trend Carney said she has been pleased to see.

"When I first came here students said, 'I'm getting off this reservation and never coming back,'" Carney said. "Now they are unafraid to explore new horizons and want to come back and contribute that knowledge to their own people. To me, that's a great change."