Hays City Commissioner Ron Mellick recalls the big local debate 10 years ago when the commission decided to lease the vacated U.S. Army Reserve building on south Main to NCK Tech.

“I was on the commission when we deliberated on whether to turn that campus over to you guys,” said Mellick, addressing NCKTech President Eric Burks on Thursday evening at the commission’s regular meeting in city hall.

“We had no idea you guys would take it and run with it like this,” Mellick said. “This is fantastic. If we could have seen then what we see now, that decision would have been done in a heartbeat.”

Known as Big Creek Technical Training Center, the brick building is an extension of NCK’s larger Wheatland Avenue campus in Hays. It houses electrical technology, plumbing and HVAC, as well as carpentry classes.

“This is our 10-year anniversary,” Burks told the Hays City Commissioners, “and since 2009 we’ve trained 440 full-time students in that space that you’ve allowed us to be a part of, so I appreciate that.”

This academic year, for the first time ever, the freshman class in Hays is the same size, 250 students, as in Beloit, where the two-year college started out as a vocational technical school to keep western Kansas’ rural and small town kids from leaving the area.

Burks told commissioners Thursday that 90% of NCK’s graduates stay in Kansas.

“Most of our graduates stay within 50 miles of where they attend, or they go back to their home,” Burks said. “Their skills, though, enable them to go anywhere. If they want to go to Dallas, or they want to go to Chicago, Denver, wherever, they certainly have portable degrees they can take.”

Mayor Sean Musil applauded NCK’s success at that, citing Fort Hays State’s similar efforts.

“What you’re doing is exactly what we need for our community,” Musil said. “So I appreciate what you’re doing.”

A fully accredited college by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits all the 2- and 4-year higher education institutions in Kansas, Burks said many of NCK’s 1,200 students ultimately transfer into FHSU when they finish.

Likewise, NCK graduates 300 students annually into the Kansas workforce, he said, with salaries comparable to four-year college grads, but without their heavy debt burden.

“Some of our students couldn’t go to their own graduation ceremony because they couldn’t get off work,” Burks said. “We’ve had the No. 1 placement in the nation for two years, 2017 and 2018.”

The value of the college’s 17 programs for students, as return on investment, was recognized recently, he said. With a graduation rate of more than 73% and a job placement rate at 93%, NCK scores high in outside rankings.

“There was a recent study done by Georgetown University that showed the net present value over 40 years, and we’re right in there,” Burks told the commissioners. “The top five institutions in Kansas, the top one was Washburn Tech, the next one was KU, the next one was K-State, and then Manhattan Area Technical College and North Central Technical College.”

Coveted Chronicle of Higher Education rankings put NCK in the top seven for graduation rates for two-year institutions for three of the last four years, Burks said.

NCK also has been recognized every time for the prominent Aspen Prize, which every two years recognizes the top 2% of two-year colleges in the nation.

There is no direct tax burden, because NCK doesn’t have a local mill levy, Burks said, but is supported through student tuition and state reimbursement.

About 90% of jobs now require some post-secondary training, whether an associates degree, a four-year degree, a license or certificate, Burks said.

“There’s really not a lot of jobs for people beyond high school just with a high school diploma,”

NCK is in the fifth year of a $100,000 pilot program grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, of Logan, designed to help nontraditional students get skills.

“We all know somebody working in a job that’s below what they’re capable of,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a CNA, but it’s not as much of a wage to support your family as being a nurse and getting that RN or LPN degree. This is designed to bridge that gap.”

Better than any full-ride scholarship for athletes, he said, the Hansen program pays not only for books and tuition, but cost of living, day care expenses, help with managing debt by making credit card payments while attending school and other expenses.

“So if you know anybody that might be interested in that,” he said, “we’re always looking for people to bridge that gap to help get them out of poverty.”

Working with the community

NCK’s improvements at Big Creek include replacing ceiling tiles, remodeling the space for a computer lab and classroom, creating open classroom space, putting on new paint, adding new furniture, along with security cameras, solar array, eye wash stations, a gas line and a furnace and air conditioning system in the large office space, Burks said. A bathroom mock-up allows students to learn how to install toilets and sinks, with a simulated crawl space.

NCK also does work for departments within the City of Hays, its instructors choosing from a list of to-do jobs.

“We could get our students over their heads pretty quick, you gotta remember, these are students, they’re learning,” Burks said. “So we have to work with their limits, the timeframe that we have and the curriculum that we have.”

Now in its eighth year building a project house to auction, Burks said the ribbon cutting for this year’s house, 1,960-square feet, is 10 a.m. April 30. The auction is Thursday, May 14.

The 2019 home sold for $160,000, generating $13,200 in sales tax, he said, and represented more than $123,000 in building supplies, most of it purchased in Hays.

As with the house, classes are hands-on and emulate the work environment, he said.

“There are several Hays businesses that serve on our advisory committees to help make sure we’re training folks in what they’re supposed to know,” he said. “We want people in the industry so that we’re turning out graduates that can be employed.”

A new economic impact study shows NCK has a $30.7 million economic impact in the 18 counties it serves, including the 95 people who work there, 35 of them in Hays, Burks said. NCK is looking now to hire a vice president for the Hays campus, he said.

City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs expressed her gratitude for NCK’s contribution.

“The collaborative things that you do are really outstanding,” Jacobs said.