May 21, 2014. Mark that date on your calendar – it could be the low water mark in Van Wert County history, the point where real change began. This past Wednesday, Ohio’s Board of Regents designated Northwest State as the community college provider for Van Wert County.

What’s so significant about that, you ask? Northwest State has been in the county for years now. What’s significant is that it clears the way for that institution to begin making real investment in our county. Prior to Wednesday, Van Wert County was one of the few undesignated counties in the entire state. Although some institutions, including Northwest State, tested our waters with a smattering of courses, no one was willing to make a full-fledged commitment.

Northwest State being designated as the provider keeps other colleges from swooping in and undercutting any success it might develop here. If it demonstrates a profitable market, without a designation, others could come and start offering the same courses. I know, it sounds like a monopoly, which normally isn’t good. In the world of higher education, though, it’s what allows a community college some security to invest.

Now, when I ran for commissioner, I wanted a branch campus, not a community college. I have since changed my mind. This is better, and for almost every reason. In the Lima News just last weekend there was an article about how enrollment is down at every Ohio State branch in the state, dropping 20% since 2009. Lima’s branch is down 28% in that span. This is, no doubt, more than partially attributable to the options now available at UNOH in Lima. But branch campuses are receding because community colleges can now do what they used to do and more – and cheaper.

In the past, branch colleges offered affordable, transferrable college credits close to home. That can now be accomplished at community colleges. I’ve written in past columns about TAG (Transfer Assurance Guarantee) classes. You spend more than half your time at a major campus getting the liberal arts taken care of for that bachelor’s degree – math, science, social studies, history, etc. Now these classes can be taken at a community college and they are required by law to be accepted at any Ohio institution.

Further, community colleges can offer certificate courses. Not everyone needs a four-year degree. Many employers just need someone that has a rudimentary understanding of computers, electronics, or industrial maintenance. The jobs of the future are going to require an education, but not necessarily abstract thinking about Napoleon’s mistakes at Waterloo or the Theory of Relativity.

Northwest State can bring any of the outlying benefits of bigger institutions through partnering. According to Mari Yoder, its Vice President for Institutional Advancement, that is something Northwest State already does and will look to do more. For example, it offers a plastics program with the University of Toledo and bachelor’s degrees and MBAs with Bluffton University. Yoder says the programs at community colleges evolve around the needs of the community.

“Our welding program was shrinking for years until six or seven years ago when a company located in Hicksville that needed a lot of welders. Then some other companies came along needing welders and now that’s a big program we offer again.”

A local example is a program on windmill maintenance Northwest State is working on in a partnership with Vantage. It also already partners with Wright State on some courses. Yoder says a consortium with multiple colleges would not only be accepted, but sought out.

What used to be called dual enrollment and post secondary education is morphing into something called College Credit Plus. The larger presence of Northwest State locally can allow something like Becca Gear, a Patrick Henry senior who will graduate soon. Gear, recently featured in the Defiance Crescent News, took classes through Northwest State while in high school. She will start school next fall at Ohio State University’s main campus – as a junior.

After taking the College Credit Plus courses in high school, Gear has an associate’s degree and the first two years of college completed. Her cost for completing those two years of college in high school: $2,000 for the courses she took through the summer (classes during the school year are generally free.) Those two years at Ohio State main campus: around $50,000. That’s real money bro.

At Northwest State, the cost of a credit hour is $146. According to Yoder, the cheapest rate you’ll find at a university is somewhere closer to $300. Even if you don’t get it done in high school as Becca Gear did, you can better afford it close to home at any point in your life.

Community colleges have been around for decades, but not here. One is coming at the perfect time. Whatever might fill that Megasite (or Super Site as it now seems to want to be known) is going to love this for the development of its workforce and for its workforce’s kids. Mark May 21, 2014, on your calendar. It was the day that Van Wert, an aging community with a steady population decline, got younger for the first time in as long as anyone can remember.