Interview with Laura Coleman, President of Bay College

By Rural Insights | June 16, 2021

Dr. Laura Coleman, President of Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba, MI, is one of the most respected community college leaders in Michigan and across the country. In this interview we discuss lots of interesting information about higher education in the Upper Peninsula and in Michigan.

More About Dr. Laura Coleman:
Dr. Coleman assumed the position of President in July of 2006. Prior to joining Bay College, she was Executive Dean at Bertrand Crossing Campus, Lake Michigan College, Benton Harbor, MI. She also served as Interim Dean of Institute for Diversity and Leadership at Lake Michigan College, Benton Harbor, MI. She served as the Director at the Jefferson City Campus of State Fair Community College. Dr. Coleman received her Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, her Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Lake Forest, IL, and her Bachelor of Science (BS) degree from the University of Illinois.


David Haynes:

Greetings everyone. We are delighted that today at Rural Insights, we are joined by the president of Bay College, Dr. Laura Coleman. And she’s going to tell us about what’s going on at Bay College, and Delta, and Dickinson College, and the impact of community colleges in rural areas, which is a huge, huge issue. So, President Coleman, thank you for being here. And so-

Laura Coleman:

Thank you very much for having me.

David Haynes:

… delighted. So, let’s just start with, what’s up these days at Bay College, what’s exciting everybody and what’s happening?

Laura Coleman:

Well, we are thrilled we made it through the COVID pandemic in good standing. And in fact, Bay College was the only community college in the state that actually had an increase in enrollment. And many of the colleges downstate were down 25%. And so, we were very, very blessed, that we were able to serve the community in a way that the community felt comfortable with. And we did a really good job with it.

Our faculty members who are teaching classes with labs, were able to find ways to be able to provide those labs. And so, we were able to also be helpful in getting students through to degrees, that they could go out and start working, in our community right away.

And that’s an exceptionally important piece, because one of the things that you’re hearing about routinely right now, is that the employers in the UP, and really across the state are having a really hard time finding employees. And so, our ability to train people so they can go out and work within our community, business and industry, is a very important part of our goal.

David Haynes:

So, that is quite an accomplishment, no drop in enrollment, other than brilliant leadership from the president, which I loved to hear people say when I was a president. But how did that happen? That’s an interesting-

Laura Coleman:

I think the part of the piece, was when the governor opened up the UP. And she said that people could come back to work. We consider every person at Bay College to be a essential worker. And so, our employees came back to work. So, they were here, when students needed to be able to come in and have a face-to-face conversation.

And we had it set up so that there was, lines on people’s carpet. The adults who come to school, wouldn’t go across that line. Everybody was wearing their mask. We were cleaning things like crazy all over the place. And it was visible. People could see the cleaning going on during the day. And so, I think that that was part of it.

The other piece I would say is, [inaudible 00:03:05] strong. People gave every bit of the effort that they had, and then some. It was amazing for me to watch the employees just go in this hyper speed, getting things set up at their home so that they could do their work when they were at home. And then when they were able to come back, coming back, and doing their work here.

And with all of the different pieces, when you got into the school year, and you had kids are being quarantined, or daycare is happy to close down because the kids needed to be quarantined or whatever. Everybody just took care of business. And people find out that they could actually work at home. They didn’t have to take a vacation day, or a sick day, or whatever. They could just do their work. And everybody just put forth every ounce of effort that there was. And I think the students felt that.

And we had the classes that had labs, they were still going on campus. And so, our science classes had labs, the nursing students had labs, and they also had clinicals. And we had mechatronics robotics with their labs. And the welding has a lab. There’s classes that just have labs, that need to be in-person. And so, those all took place. And I have to tell you, walking down the hall and seeing those students actually in the buildings, was just a wonderful thing. You know this, David. When you’d walk down the halls and you see actual students, it’s like, “Wow, this is just fantastic.” Because you get your energy from those students.

David Haynes:

Absolutely. So, what are the major degrees that students are coming to Bay College for? I know you have the wide backroom in addition to the general education. What other things that they’re coming to Bay for?

Laura Coleman:

Our biggest degree program is our nursing program. We have one of the biggest nursing programs in the state. Which means that the UP has never been without nurses. You know what I mean? We just really have done a really good job of providing the UP with nurses. That’s our biggest program.

Our mechatronics and robotics is an exceptionally important program for the area. Because we have a lot of manufacturing, and that’s what they needed them to be trained in. And then of course, you got the computers and you’ve got welding. And so, those are all very important.

The associate of arts degree that you’re talking about, and the associate of science degree, those are also very important degrees here. And that we have students, 40% of our students are in that category of associate of arts and associate of science.

And the associate of science is very important for kids that want to be engineers or be doctors. Because they get this fantastic foundation, of having small class sizes. They get to know their professors, they can get their tutoring easily and often from their professors, or, tutoring in our hub, which is where we normally do all of our tutoring.

And this past year we were doing it via Zoom and Facebook, and any other way that people needed to get it, we were getting the tutoring to them that way. But the associate of science helps students get that foundation, and then they go and they do better when they get to the four-year institutions, because they’ve gotten that foundation down really, really well. So, yeah.

David Haynes:

Do you think that helps in particular with rural students, to give them a chance to enter into this without the fear of huge classes, that it’s a more comfortable transition from high school into college because it’s smaller classes, does that help?

Laura Coleman:

Oh, I think it absolutely does. But I think that that helps even outside of the rural communities, frankly. I have talked to people here, who their kids went here, but then they went to Michigan tech, or down the University of Michigan. And they talked about standing in line for three hours to be able to get tutoring in a physics class.

So, when they came home for Thanksgiving, our physics instructor tutored them. And then they did fine for the rest of the semester. And so, this is why I’m talking about getting that foundation. And the research across the country, shows that students who go to community colleges, their junior years, they have a higher GPA than the people who started out at the universities for their junior year.

And so, that’s the only thing I can really point to, that that makes that much of a difference to students. But certainly, the rural schools, especially the little tiny ones, when they come here, it’s a really big deal. And so, coming to a school that has 20,000 would be a really overwhelming piece. Sure.

David Haynes:

So, the governor has instituted a program, Michigan Connect, where-

Laura Coleman:


David Haynes:

Reconnect, of students over 25 without any college. And this talk about free community college tuition for community colleges that have millages, and are in the statute. Can you talk a little about what that means to the UP and the Bay?

Laura Coleman:

This is an interesting group, the 25 to 45 year olds. You and I can identify as boomers, older boomers I might add. And back in our day. I mean, I’ll just give myself as an example. I was a stay-at-home mom, and then I got a full-time job. And I went to college at night. It’s like I went from being a stay-at-home mom, to being like gone all the time. It was totally logical as a boomer to do that. Because I knew that I needed to be able to get a better job. And so, it was just very, very logical.

The kids today, the 25 to 45 year olds today, they think, wow, what’s work-life balance? I need to be there for my family. I need to have personal time. They think about these things. We just never thought about them.

And the other piece is, there’s all kinds of stuff out there in the news, constantly about colleges getting more expensive, which they are. But that’s because the state is defunding us. And so, back in 2000, Bay College, 52% of our budget was from state appropriations. Today, 30% of our budget is from state appropriations. So that’s defunding. And so, who picks that up? Well, it’s the reverse now. It used to be, they pay 52%, and the students pay 30%. It’s now just the opposite. The students are paying 50%, they’re paying 30%.

So, it makes it difficult. And so then, people are afraid of that. They’re, oh, I don’t really have any money. I can’t do that. And they forget or don’t know, that they can get Pell grants that will help them go to school.

And so, one of the great things about this Reconnect program, is everybody has to apply for Reconnect, because the state gives last-dollar on that stuff. And so, people are finding out that they really can go to school. And we need them desperately. When I say that we, I’m talking about our communities, the Upper Peninsula, the State of Michigan, the country, needs these 25 to 40 five-year-olds to get skills, so they can go out and they can work.

And the students today, are going to be in a lifelong learning cycle that, although I spent much of my life being in school, my children would tell you that. It’s going to be even more intense for them. They aren’t really going to have a choice. And they’re going to have to keep up with their education often. I mean, that’s the only way that I can say it, often.

And the employees at this college, have got to stay up on their education. Because, if you don’t get training on computers and iPads and all that stuff today, you become irrelevant in three to five years. You’re just not relevant because you can’t do the work that needs to be done.

And so, the students they’re going to need those skills. So not only do they need initially to be able to walk in the door and be able to do the work, they on top of that need to be able to continue doing so. And so, we need them to come for the first time to college, or to come back to college, because they’ve got to get what is needed. And it’s a broad spectrum of things that they can be getting their degrees in. I mean, it can be in nursing. It can be in welding. It can be in mechatronics and robotics. It can be getting a two-year degree that will go on then to a four-year institution. You know what I mean? You’re not a pigeonholed, you get to do what you want to do.

And I think a lot of people don’t realize the breadth and depth of what they can do. They just put themselves in a little box. And so, finding the way to get to that place that’s going to make them happy. And when they go to work in the morning, it’s not work, they’re there because they’re enjoying what they’re doing. And we’re a linchpin for higher education, to get those people in and through.

One of the pieces that’s difficult around Reconnect, is, you hit it right on the head, David. I’m so proud of you. It’s about the millage. And so, if you live in Delta County, where they pay 3.5 mills, you get to go for free with Reconnect, for your tuition. Your tuition is paid.

If you live in Dickinson, you have to pay an additional $69, because they only pay one mill. If you live in Marquette, you have to pay $96, because you’re not paying any mill. And so, that’s a shocking piece for people. They come in and they’re like, “Oh geez, I thought I was going to get to go for free.” No.

And so, we’re working very hard with all of our scholarships. We have a lot of scholarships that we give out. We’ve had CARES Act dollars that we’re using. I mean, there’s a lot of different ways that we’re trying to be helpful with that. And I just would say to all of these students, please do this. Please come in and get this education, because you really and truly can change your life. You could change the trajectory of your family’s life, by coming in and getting an education. And it is exceptionally important, which is why the state is funding this.

And there’ve been other states that have done this also, and they found it to be very, very successful. We’re doing a lot of pieces of reducing barriers, any kind of barrier that might be there for students. So that they can get through and get through quickly. And as I was an adult student, I got one year in after high school, and then I got married, I started having babies. I was just like, goofed that all up. So I had to go back to school.

So, I understand the urgency. When you go back to school, you want to get in and get out and get a job. And that’s what we’re here to do. And we’re working very hard at that.

David Haynes:

It’s still a pretty good deal, right? I realized $96 is a lot of money for some families, but versus a few thousand, right? If they understood that, you can go do this for $96 versus 5,000 for the semester at Marquette, right?

Laura Coleman:

Yes, absolutely positively. And that’s the part that people have to really recognize. Community colleges give a quality education, and it happens to be in a low cost. But they’re giving the same education that you would be receiving at a university. And so, it really is an exceptional opportunity. And I think the other piece that has scared people to death, is when they talk about loans. That people have a hundred thousand dollar loans.

The average student who live in Bay College, if they have a loan is under $10,000. It’s way low. And not everybody does. I mean, not everybody’s in that space. But it really is the best thing you could possibly do. I mean, you go out and buy a used car, it’s going to cost you under $10,000. I mean, it’s a lot.

But with this Reconnect, you’re going to be in a much better space. And so, I just would encourage people to come in and talk to our financial aid people, and apply for scholarships and grants that we’ve got available. And you’ll be able to get through it. And we will be there every step of the way. I mean, that’s the other piece that I would say to you, is, Bay College has got a reputation for being focused on student success. And students will actually tell you, my gosh, this college just wants me to get through, and be successful, and graduate.

And that’s our words. That’s what we use on a regular basis. And we are here for all of our students. And getting tutoring early and often, is the thing people do at Bay College. And so, they are successful. And we have a good graduation rate, better than most in the state. And so, we do what we can do, and we help them develop the skill sets that they need to be successful, not only in college, but in life.

David Haynes:

So, students from all across the Upper Peninsula, regardless of where they live, ought to do this. Because, as you said, $96, you live in Marquette, or you live in Baraga, or you live in Holton, is a pretty good deal. You could sign up.

Laura Coleman:

Absolutely. 100%. And depending on the classes that you’re taking, if you want to take them online, you can do that. So that you’re just able to do that from home too. But if you want to come to the buildings, we’ve got the buildings, we’ve got the classes, and we’ve got fantastic instructors.

And a lot of people are nervous, because they’re not 18 or 19. So, gosh, am I as smart as that other person sitting in the room? Yes, you are, number one. Number two, you know why you’re there. And so, you’re even more determined. And so, you’ve got the grit, you got the reason to be there and do it, and you will be successful.

David Haynes:

So, do you think we will see in Michigan, free community college tuition sometime in the future, across the board for 18 year old, whatever age, younger than 25, let’s say, because the Michigan [inaudible 00:17:51]? Do think we’ll ever see that, is that going to happen, or is that happening?

Laura Coleman:

I don’t know that it will happen because of Michigan. I think the… Let me rephrase that. The kids who are in high school right now, are able to do dual enrollment and early college. And with the early college, you can get your community college degree completely paid for. So, you can get out after two years, have associate’s degree, then go onto your four-year institution, and only have to pay for two years of college.

So, I think that that’s number one very important. And I have to tell you, every year we have more students out of K-12 who are graduating. And this year, we had 17 students graduate with their associate’s degree, three weeks before they graduated from their high school degree. So, it works. You have to be very planned and very thoughtful about what you’re doing, but it really does work. So that’s number one that I need to say.

Number two, one of the things that’s being proposed in Washington DC right now, is increasing the Pell Grant dollars. And if they were to increase the Pell Grant dollars. And the biggest amount we’re talking about, is just to double it, which should be fantastic. That would not only get you through your community college, but it would probably get you a great deal of the way through a four-year institution. And the words that are coming out is, it’s time for our country to decide people need more than just a high school education.

And I look back to world War II. And the army realized that, wow, if we got people educated, that they’d be better soldiers. So they developed the GED. And so then, all of a sudden, when the army did that, it was like, “Oh wow, everybody needs to graduate from high school.” That’s when it became the thing to do, to graduate from high school, was during World War II.

David Haynes:


Laura Coleman:

And so, I don’t know. That was 65 years ago… No, 75. I was right the first time, 75 years ago. I’m thinking that after 75 years, you’re going to need to have even more education because there’s so much more information.

So, logically, getting at least a two year degree, if not also the bachelor’s degree. And there’s people that need to have a bachelor’s degree, but there’s a lot more people who need to have a two year degree. It makes a whole lot of sense. And so, do I hope that that will happen? I absolutely do. And the way to do that, is through funding of people’s tuition. And when it comes to Pell grants, that would cover everybody. It wouldn’t matter what county you were in, you would be able to do that.

David Haynes:

So, with all the concern about student debt load, this would also help future student debt load, right? I mean-

Laura Coleman:

It absolutely would. And I always get very frustrated with the news media around this. Because they look at the people who’ve got after their master’s and their PhDs, which costs a lot more money than associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. And so, you don’t see those kinds of debts usually, with a bachelor’s degree or lower. You just don’t. It’s when the people get up into master’s and PhDs, that they start getting that huge amount of debt.

And people need to be responsible. It was interesting to me, a newscast, several months ago. And some kids were trying to decide where they were going to go to college. And because of COVID, and they had to actually sit down and think about things. They started actually thinking about the difference of going to a public university or going to a private university to get their bachelor’s degrees.

And of course the public, 12 to 15 grand a year. Private, 50, 60 grand a year. All right, which one are you going to do? What makes the most sense? And so, I think that everybody needs to just look and see what the costs are, and what are the net results from those costs. And the public institutions need to be supported, so that we can keep our tuition rates lower. So that everyone does have access.

Because the only way out of low socioeconomic circumstances, is through education. And I say that 98% of the time. There’s a few who are going to be able to go through and just get stuff done, but it’s needed. And the number of people who need to have a degree in general, is about 70%, 75%. And of those, a little over half need to be associate’s degrees. Because we need the people in the trades. We need the welders. We need the mechatronics and robotics. We need the CNC operators. These are the jobs that pay really good money, and they only require associate’s degree.

Our water technology program. You have people lined up to hire these people, lined up. They’re just, we can’t have enough students in that program. And they get out and they’re making 50 to $65,000 a year with a two year degree. It’s a tough degree. Got lots of science in it. Lots of chemistry. And so, there’s just all these wonderful opportunities that an education can provide. And Reconnect, getting those 25 to 45 year olds back into education, is a big, huge jump and helpful.

And the high school kids, kids right out of high school up to the age of 24, Pell grants are there. But if they could increase the Pell grants and get those higher in any shape way or form, to help students. Because it’s not just about the tuition fees, you got to pay your rent, you got to pay for your car, you got to pay for your gas, you got to pay for your food. I mean, these are all things that, the additional costs of life. And people need to be able to pay for those. And it will help our country tremendously, if we can get more people educated.

David Haynes:

Well, we’ve been talking with Dr. Laura Coleman, the president of Bay College. Thank you for doing this.

Laura Coleman:

You’re welcome.

David Haynes:

And I hope you’ll do it again with us. This is a great opportunity for our readers and listeners. And thank you. And so, but just probably now, you’ve been president how long now?

Laura Coleman:

15 years.

David Haynes:

Oh my God. All you presidents have a long time. I couldn’t believe lasting that long. I mean, it’s an exhausting job. Congratulations on a great presidency, and good luck as you come along. And I’ll call you soon and we’ll do another one.

Laura Coleman:

I would love to do another one. And thank you so much for having me come. I appreciate the opportunity. And it has been my pleasure to be a president. And I got to tell you, when I started, I didn’t know that I’d make it for 15 years. Because it is a hard job, but we do it. So, thank you very, very much. Have a good day.

David Haynes:

You’re welcome. And I’ll talk to you.

Laura Coleman:

You betcha. Bye-bye.

David Haynes:

No problem. Bye-bye.


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