Q&A with Dr. Wilfredo Nieves, President of Capital Community College


Dr. Wilfredo Nieves, president of Capital Community College in downtown Hartford, sat down to answer questions about his college, which has more than 6000 students, and to explain the benefits of a community college education.
Q. Give us some basic facts on Capital Community College. How many students will be enrolled come September?
A. Capital Community College (CCC) is the only public undergraduate college in Hartford and the first federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) in the state, one of only a handful in New England. We’re located in the former G. Fox department store building, which has been beautifully renovated – it’s a spectacular facility! As a college without a traditional campus, we consider downtown Hartford our campus and are increasingly taking advantage of all of the cultural institutions at our doorstep, with a curriculum and internships connected to neighboring museums, theaters, historical organizations and businesses.
CCC enrolls more than 6,000 students annually in 60 associate degree and certificate programs, and we expect this number or more for the 2012-2013 academic year. It is anticipated that 51,000 Health I.T. workers will be needed over the next 5 years, and we will soon begin accelerated and weekend classes for our Health Information Technology training program that will have students trained in the field by the new year. This particular program is for those with health or I.T. experience and associate degrees and higher already, but for those with no background in the timely field we have a brand new degree program in Health Information Management. Capital also offers extensive ESL, continuing education and customized training.
Q. What value does a community college like yours present to its students? Is lower-cost education just as valuable as what can be learned at the first two years of a four-year college?
A. The best way for me to describe the value of community colleges, and Capital in particular, is to share the words of our students. Capital Community College students often tell me that it “feels like home at Capital” and that “CCC has amazing faculty” and “fantastic programs.” A recent graduate who was part of our Capital Crossroads to Careers (C3) program , (a partnership between Capital Community College, Travelers and United Healthcare designed to expose students to careers in insurance and financial services, which includes financial support towards completing their associate degrees while participating in paid internships) said, “As I prepare to begin my first semester at Central Connecticut State University, I can’t help remembering how I felt about my future when I was in high school. I thought college wasn’t for me, and that my only option for being successful was to start my own business driving a tractor trailer. I hope the C3 program continues giving students like me a second opportunity.”
This program and the paid internship are exclusive to Capital, and one of many such opportunities to bright futures we provide students. Not bad, and all at an affordable cost.
Q. Are community colleges still “schools of last resort” for students coming out of high school who couldn’t get into other colleges and universities? Has that reality changed?
A. This truly is a misperception and too often exaggerated. While we do accept students who may not be ready for college, which is an important part of our mission, we also accept and enroll many students who are college graduates, some having graduate studies and credentials. Our programs are rigorous and competitive. We work with those students who are not college ready and help them to develop the skills to be successful. As a result, our graduates are able to transfer to four-year colleges and universities or to enter the workforce prepared.
Q. How do the demographics of your institution break down? Do community colleges like yours tend to have more minorities than the four-year institutions?
A. Capital has the most diverse student body of any institution of higher education in Connecticut. The college enrolls the 2nd highest percentage of minority students among 252 New England colleges, and our students are largely first-generation students. Over 60% of CCC students are African American and Latino/a and Capital, as stated earlier, was the first college in the state designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution and is one of only a handful in New England.
Community colleges generally enroll diverse student bodies because of their accessibility based on support for students, cost, and location in the communities they serve.
Q. How much does a two-year associate’s degree cost (approximately)? How does an associate’s degree benefit a student financially once he or she graduates over the course of a lifetime?
A. Tuition and fees for Connecticut residents enrolling as full-time students for the 2012-2013 academic year (Fall 2012 and Spring 2013) is $3,515. For students who maximize their full-time enrollment and complete their associate degree in two years the cost could be as low as $7,730.00. That is a lot less than the cost of tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities, both public and private. Despite this reasonable cost – which is attracting more and more students in this tough economy, including those who would normally go straight to a four-year college, most of our students make use of some combination of Financial Aid and scholarships.
The average income over the lifetime for an individual with an associate degree is $1,304,000.00; for someone with a high school degree the average lifetime earnings amount to $863,000. The return on investment is substantial and that only reflects earnings, and not the social and personal enrichment that we know an education provides.
Q. What do you think is the biggest misperception about Capital Community College? How do you address that misperception? 
A. I believe the biggest misperception about Capital Community College, and community colleges in general, is that there is limited understanding of the comprehensive nature of our mission and the many things that we do. The fact that Capital and its programs are accredited regionally and have programmatic reviews under the same standards as four-year colleges and universities is not widely understood. The fact that we do as well in these reviews as our sister institutions is even more of an unknown.
Economically, Capital and other community colleges are increasingly recognized for providing the postsecondary education that is critical to addressing workforce needs. We continue to meet the need despite diminishing public dollars to get the job done. One of our biggest challenges moving forward to increase private investment and philanthropy. That kind of support will allow us to keep education costs affordable and create pathways to higher ed and careers for the students we serve.
We will continue to tell our story and the success that our students achieve, until there are no misconceptions!