Watertown’s community college meets higher enrollments with construction boom

Dec 27, 2013

Jefferson Community College in Watertown has some big campus upgrades in the works. The projects at the SUNY school represent more than just an expansion. They could change its identity.   

On a lot coated with rocks and muddy snow, a new dorm is going up. Bart Young, foreman on the construction site, points out its features.

“All the offices will be over in this area. There’ll be a classroom down in this area, main electrical room. And this is all glass front area right here. It’ll be like a foyer coming in and out of the courtyard.”

During a cold stroll around campus, JCC President Carole McCoy explains this construction site will be home to nearly 300  students in fall 2014. She says it’s going to fundamentally change campus culture. 

“We’ll be having more activities at night, more interest in things on the weekends, more of a critical mass for a whole lot of things going on,” she says. “That sense of vibrancy is really exciting to us.”

And more than just the atmosphere around campus will improve, McCoy says. Student performance could see a boost.

“Students who form a bond with the campus just do better,” she says. “And whether that bond is because their buddies are here, or whether that bond is with a club or a particular faculty member – it doesn’t much matter, so long as they bond. That’s what’s important. So the residence hall is certainly going to bring closer ties.”

The dorm is just one of three big building projects in all stages of development here. McCoy says the school has been tight on space for years.

Jefferson County has agreed to chip in $7 million toward a new learning center, which would house the library, student and faculty space, and classrooms. JCC is hoping the state will fund the other half of the project. Last year, New York put all community college construction on hold.

The school is eyeing another, possibly even bigger project. That could include room for academics, sports and even concerts. That’s just in the planning stage right now.

McCoy says one of the driving demographic forces behind the construction boom is the same one behind most of the county’s growth. “Somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of our student body every year is associated with Fort Drum,” she says. “And we’re seeing more and more veterans. This last fall, we had more than 500 veterans.”

Like other community colleges, JCC’s enrollment is on the rise also because of the economic downturn

and a rising student debt crisis. And government job training funds for other programs during the recession are now drying up. Plus, JCC has always attracted a lot of local high school graduates since it’s the only brick-and-mortar option for 50 miles.    

McCoy says new programs aim to be adult-friendly and tightly focused on local economic opportunity. The school recently added programs in health information technology, winery operations, energy management, and substance abuse counseling, and is working on an agribusiness program with Cornell Cooperative Extension. “I did find it sort of ironic that we did wineries and substance abuse in the same year. Okay, you have to enjoy that!” McCoy says, laughing.

The substance abuse program has been a real hit, she says. The college is projecting steady two to three percent growth over the coming years.