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Few colleges buck trend of falling enrollment
Health care, manufacturing education programs show promise as number of high school grads is flat at best


New programs, old reliables and innovative approaches boosted enrollment at several colleges in the region this semester.

However, the majority of colleges and universities surveyed showed at least slight declines in enrollment. Some, such as Creighton University, pointed to record enrollments last year and said a small drop-off posed no reason for alarm.

The fact that so many of the colleges reported decreases in enrollment reflects the increase in competition for available students. In Nebraska, the numbers of high school graduates are fairly flat, and in the Midwest as a whole those numbers are down.

Wayne State College President Marysz Rames said it "takes your entire campus" to produce a successful enrollment effort. Wayne State enrollment jumped 9.9% last year and 5.5% this year.

Rames said her college has worked closely with industry representatives in the region to respond to workforce needs.

Wayne State opened a new Center for Applied Technology early this year. It has also begun offering a program in engineering technology and has increased courses in manufacturing management.

Merritt Nelson, vice president for enrollment management at Fremont-based Midland University, said many regional colleges and universities are fishing in the same pond for prospective students, and that pond is shrinking.

Midland showed an enrollment increase of less than 1%. "We're not satisfied," Nelson said.

He said Midland wants to "be a player in the future of higher education." To do that, he said, a college must identify what workers the Nebraska and American marketplace needs and what gaps a college can fill best.

"We're going to find out what works for us," he said. What works for one school might not work for another. Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, had alumni "almost begging us" to start a master's program in education, said Northwestern President Greg Christy. That way, teachers in northwest Iowa and across the state could upgrade their skills and get a boost in salary from many school districts.

Christy said Northwestern College has a strong undergraduate program in education and was confident that it could create a good graduate program. The college "thought we had a niche," Christy said, and created an online master's degree in education four years ago. It has taken off.

Northwestern's Duane Beeson said 352 students participated in the program this year, up from 275 last fall. So that program alone made up a good chunk of Northwestern's 105-student gain in enrollment.

In Nebraska, York College also has done well with online master's degree programs in education and in organizational and global leadership.

York President Steven Eckman said those programs enrolled 87 students this year, up from 42 last year. That means they provided a large part of the school's 77-student enrollment growth.

The region's biggest public universities had declines in enrollment. That includes Iowa State, Iowa, Northern Iowa, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

For evidence that the pool of available young students is flat or shrinking, consider that the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Colorado has estimated that the Midwest produced about 776,800 high school graduates in 2010 and only 735,300 this year.

The UNO Center for Public Affairs Research estimated that Nebraska produced about 20,380 white 18-year-olds in 2010 and only about 18,255 this year. This was not quite balanced by an increase of about 1,955 in 18-year-old minority-group members in Nebraska from 2010 to 2019.

Bellevue University experienced a big bump in enrollment. President Mary Hawkins said that is partly because of Bellevue's partnerships with companies across the nation, such as Walmart, Disney and First National Bank of Omaha.

Bellevue also has 41 community colleges in the nation that it partners with, placing a staffer on most of those campuses. Hawkins said Bellevue also doesn't do a lot of second-guessing about the transferability of most community college programs.

Dr. Dele Davies, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the NU Medical Center in Omaha, said another demographic trend has increased the need for health care workers. That is a growing population of elderly Nebraskans and older Americans.

The medical center set its 19th consecutive enrollment record this semester. Some other colleges that focus on producing health care workers, such as Nebraska Methodist College in Omaha and the Bryan College of Health Sciences, also enjoyed jumps in enrollment.

Health care professions have been hot for years. There's a shortage across the nation in many health professions, Davies said. "I really think what you're seeing is just a response to a need."

Midland's Nelson said higher education hasn't done a good job of changing to meet evolving times and trends. But with a smaller pool of young adults available to recruit from, Nelson said, that will have to change.

rick.ruggles@owh.com, 402-444-1123

Flood recovery at Offutt could cost $1 billion and take five years
Most new buildings, some with 'sacrificial' first floors, will be in March flood zone

Six months after what 55th Wing officials describe as "historic and disastrous" flooding swamped one-third of Offutt Air Force Base and destroyed 137 structures, the expected costs of rebuilding continue to mount.

Lt. Col. Chris Conover, who is spearheading the recovery and reconstruction project, said the figure now stands at $790 million. But during a recent tour of the flood zone, he warned that it most likely will rise further — perhaps even hitting $1 billion, since the cost of furnishing and equipping many of the new buildings hasn't yet been fully calculated.

"We're not all the way yet," said Conover, director of the Wing's Next Generation Project Management Office.

55th Wing engineers have sketched out a $359 million plan to replace the damaged structures with taller buildings, organizing them into eight functional "campuses" that will group related functions together. Conover said reconstruction could take as long as five years.

"We're trying to do a very methodical, deliberate approach," he said.

Seven of the eight campuses will be built in the area south of Offutt's runway where water reached a depth of up to eight feet during the March floods, which Conover labeled a 500-year event.

He said some of those campuses need to be at the south end, near the aircraft. Plus, there's not enough empty space on the higher ground north of the runway to relocate many buildings to that area.

"The real estate up here is pretty limited," Conover said. "This gives us the opportunity to smartbuild."

New buildings in the flood zone will be perched 3 to 5 feet higher than the flood-damaged structures, he said, and many will be built with multiple floors. Roads on the south end of the base will be raised higher, too.

Some buildings will feature what Conover called "sacrificial" first stories, containing only noncritical equipment and facilities. Most of the flood-damaged buildings were only one or two stories high. One such building contained a pair of mission simulators that will cost $234 million to replace.

The Air Force is also counting on a $35 million project to upgrade two adjacent Missouri River levees to block future floods. That project, spearheaded by the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District and funded by several state and local governments, will raise the levees 1 to 3 feet and widen them by 2 to 4 feet and is expected to be completed in late 2020 or early 2021.

That's not all that's happening at Offutt. U.S. Strategic Command will cut the ribbon late next month on its new $1.3 billion headquarters building. Offutt's single runway will be rebuilt in 2020 and 2021 for $176 million. And the 55th Wing will spend an estimated $9.5 million to renovate the old StratCom building for its own new headquarters.

Collectively, these projects will mark the biggest transformation since the former Fort Crook Army post was adapted for the Air Force during and after World War II.

"It is definitely going to be a new face, a new layout (for Offutt)," Conover said.

The floods hit eastern Nebraska and western Iowa March 15 through 17, after a record February snowfall was followed by a freeze, then a huge snow and rainstorm over Nebraska called a "bomb cyclone."

The perfect storm of events caused record high-water levels in the Missouri and Platte Rivers and their tributaries after dozens of levees failed.

In the Omaha metro area, Offutt bore the brunt of the disaster. One nearby levee at the confluence of the Missouri and the Platte was breached. When that levee broke, the adjacent levee protecting Offutt and the Papillion Creek Water Treatment Plant was overwhelmed. The southern third of Offutt — about 2,500 acres — filled up like a bathtub with 720 million gallons of water.

Offutt personnel worked round the clock for two days to save the base, filling 400,000 sandbags, but they couldn't hold back the river. Luckily, electricity was shut off and all of the base's aircraft were either flown out or taxied to higher ground before the water reached them.

When the waters receded, they left behind a swamp of slime and muck.

Of the 137 structures lost to the flood, 44 served as offices for military and civilian personnel. About 1.2 million square feet of office space was lost, including headquarters buildings for the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, the 55th Operations Group, the 55th Security Forces Squadron, the 595th Command and Control Group, and the 55th Wing itself.

All are slated for demolition, Conover said.

The floods destroyed five of the Wing's seven Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, or SCIFs, which are rooms or suites specially built to guard against electronic eavesdropping. Conover said they can't be easily replaced because there is a lengthy certification process to ensure that they are truly spy-proof.

As a result, 55th Wing personnel are double-shifting in the SCIFs.

These secure rooms also created headaches after the flood, Conover said, because they were loaded with waterlogged classified materials that had to be guarded at all times. They couldn't be opened up and aired out like other parts of the buildings.

He worked in one of them at the time of the flood.

"My office was one of the last to be opened," Conover said. "The blackmold just took over. It's hard. Devastating."

Some flooded buildings are being salvaged. Work has begun on rebuilding Tennant Hall, the former home of the 97th Intelligence Squadron, at a cost of $11 million. The Wing will spend $18 million to repair the Bennie Davis Maintenance Facility, used primarily as an aircraft hangar, and $12.6 million to fix up the alert facility for E-4B Airborne Command Post crews. The veterinary clinic and several electrical and sewage pump stations also can be saved.

The floods displaced about 3,200 military and civilian workers, one-third of the base's workforce. Many set up shop in a conference center and Offutt's former officer's club. "We stuffed a lot of people in there as a Band-Aid solution," Conover said. "We never skipped a beat on the mission."

Hundreds of workers from several units are being resettled in Building D, the historic World War II-eraMartin Bomber Plant, where workers assembled B-26 and B-29 bombers during the war. For years it's been slated for demolition to make way for a taxiway at Offutt, but the Air Force has never found the money to do the work.

Conover said office space in the building that was last used 10 to 15 years ago by the former Air Force Weather Agency is being spruced up to be used again.

"The silver lining is, we had it available," he said.

Master Sgt. Jason (whose last name is not being used because of 55th Wing security protocol) just moved into Building D with others from the 97th Intelligence Squadron, which supports the 55th Wing's reconnaissance operations. He has spent most of his 13-year Air Force career with the 97th.

"For me, it's emotionally painful," he said. "I spent most of my career in that building."

The Wing spent $37 million on immediate recovery efforts after the flood. Part of the work involved sending contract workers in hazardous materials suits to scoop out the fetid mud, contaminated with sewage.

Six months later, it's possible to walk through the ruined buildings, though a flashlight is necessary (there's no electricity) and a mask is highly recommended. Black mold is everywhere.

In the 55th Wing headquarters building, slime-crusted furniture has tumbled every which way. Chairs, tables, desks, couches, even kitchen appliances floated as the water rose, and toppled over as it slowly receded.

In a break room, a refrigerator lies on its back, the door opened, with cases of warm Mountain Dew still stacked inside.

There's a high-water mark on the walls, about five feet above the floor.

Waterlogged boxes, file folders, and cabinets fill the cluttered office of the 55th Wing historian, John McQueney. Firefighters broke down the door as several current and retired veterans mounted a heroic effort to save precious artifacts from the Wing's long history before they were lost to the flood. They saved plenty of relics, but clearly they couldn't get them all.

"A lot of that was lost," Conover said. "Gone to the black mold."

sliewer@owh.com, 402-444-1186 twitter.com/SteveLiewer

Amid growth in snacking, officials weigh 'junk food' tax, other options

NEW YORK (AP) — Americans are addicted to snacks, and food experts are paying closer attention to what that might mean for health and obesity.

Eating habits in the U.S. have changed significantly in recent decades, and packaged bars, chips and sweets have spread into every corner of life. In the late 1970s, about 40% of American adults said they didn't have any snacks during the day. By 2007, that figure was just 10%.

To get a better handle on the implications of differing eating patterns, U.S. health officials are reviewing scientific research on how eating frequency affects health, including weight gain and obesity. The analysis is intended to gauge the broader spectrum of possibilities, including fasting. But snacking, grazing and "mini meals" are likely to be among the factors considered, given how they have upended the three-meals-a-day model. Findings could potentially be reflected in the government's updated dietary guidelines next year, though any definitive recommendations are unlikely.

For public health officials, part of the challenge is that snacking is a broad term that can mean a 100-calorie apple or a 500-calorie Frappuccino. How people adjust what they eat the rest of the day also varies. Snacks may help reduce hunger and overeating at meals, but they can also just push up the total calories consumed.

While there's nothing wrong with snacks per se, they have become much more accessible. It also has become more socially acceptable to snackmore places: at work meetings and while walking, driving or shopping for clothes.

"We live in a 24/7 food culture now," said Dana Hunnes, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center.

To encourage better choices as global obesity rates climb, officials have considered government interventions, including "junk food" taxes.

In Mexico, which has among the highest obesity rates in the world, special taxes on sugary drinks and foods including some snacks and candies went into effect in 2014.

Last week, a study in the medical journal BMJ found that taxing sugary snacks in the United Kingdom could have a bigger impact on obesity rates than a tax on sugary drinks that went into effect last year. While sugary drinks account for 2% of average calories in the United Kingdom, sugary snacks like cakes and cookies account for 12%, according to the study.

Complicating matters, snack options are continuing to broaden beyond the standard chips and cookies.

"Manufacturers have tried to tap into Americans' concern for health," said Paula Johnson of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Health officials should also consider what emotional or mental health benefits might be lost when people move away from meals, said Sophie Egan, who writes about American food culture. Meals can be a time for social connectivity, she said, while snacks are usually eaten alone. She also noted the growth in snacking may be fueled by the stress of busier lives.

"Who knows how much food is a Band-Aid for those issues," Egan said.

Food companies have moved to capitalize on Americans' love of snacks and stretched the definition of the word. Dunkin Donuts' former CEO has said the chain's sandwiches should be considered snacks, not lunch. When Hershey bought a meat jerky company, the candy company said it wanted to expand its offerings across the "snacking continuum" to include more nutritious options.

Hunnes recommends sticking to minimally processed options like fruit or nuts when snacking.

Camp for women, kids in Syria is 'like an academy' for Islamic State

AL-HOL, Syria — The woman told aid workers it was an accident.

Her 14-year-old daughter had slipped and fallen, she said. There was nothing they could have done.

But the body told a different story. The girl's neck had been broken in three places, doctors said. Photos and medical records suggested she had been beaten, then strangled. It was murder, not a misstep.

The teen, an Azerbaijani girl who had lived until earlier this year with her mother under the Islamic State's caliphate, had run afoul of the group's die-hard adherents, who have come in the past few months to dominate parts of the al-Hol displacement camp here in northeastern Syria, according to camp residents. They said she had suggested dispensing with her black niqab, the face covering worn by ultraconservative Muslim women.

Half a year after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State, the vast sprawl of tents at the al-Hol camp is becoming a cauldron of radicalization. About 20,000 women and 50,000 children who had lived under the caliphate are held in dire conditions at the camp, which is operated and guarded by 400 U.S.-supported Kurdish troops.

With the men of the Islamic State imprisoned elsewhere, the women inside the fences of al-Hol are reimposing the militant group's strictures, enforcing them upon those deemed impious with beatings and other brutality, and extending what residents and camp authorities call a reign of fear.

Several guards have been stabbed by women who conceal kitchen knives in the folds of their robes. Women are threatened for being in contact with lawyers who might get them out of the camp or for speaking with other outsiders. A pregnant Indonesian woman was murdered, medical officials say, apparently after speaking to a Western news organization. Images of her body suggest that she might have been whipped.

"It's happening at night, and it's happening in the shadows, but no one informs on who did it," said a senior member of the camp's intelligence department. "They're afraid of each other here."

Fourteen people with direct knowledge of camp conditions described in interviews the mounting anger, violence and fanaticism growing amid the squalor. These people, including camp residents, aid workers and Kurdish officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Kurdish security officials, affiliated with the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, say they have the troops to guard the facility but do little else. "We can contain the women, but we can't control their ideology," said the intelligence official. "There are many types of people here, but some of them were princesses among ISIS. There are spaces inside the camp that are like an academy for them now."

In a report in August, the U.S. Defense Department's inspector general, citing information from the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, warned that the SDF's inability to provide more than "minimal security" at the camp has allowed for the "uncontested" spread of militant ideology there.

In some places, children, including an estimated 20,000 born in the caliphate, are literally a captive audience.

Near one gate of the camp, guards have collected homemade toy guns and Islamic State paraphernalia that children have made to pass the time. Replica weapons are made from water pipes and bound tightly with duct tape.

"The children need help here, you can see it," said the intelligence official.

"How do we stop them from becoming their parents?"

Conditions are desperate. Sewage has leaked into tents, and residents are drinking water from tanks containing worms. Many women have yet to learn what happened to husbands or teenage sons when they were carted off by the SDF, which defeated the caliphate and now staffs various camps and prisons.

Since the start of the year, when the camp accommodated fewer than 10,000 people, al-Hol has swelled dramatically. Many of the women and children were transferred to the camp after the last Islamic State stronghold, in the Syrian village of Baghouz, was overrun by the SDF, with U.S. military backing.

The residents are now segregated by nationality. Most sections house Syrians and Iraqis, while more than 9,000 others — among them the camp's most radical inhabitants — are penned behind chain-link fences in a sun-bleached and closely guarded patch known as the "Annex." It is home to Arabs, Asians, Africans and Europeans, among others.

The guards enter this zone warily. An ambush late last month left one with broken bones.

"They can do anything to you here," said one European woman in her 20s, her blue eyes darting around the camp as she spoke.

Three camp residents said that they had been stopped by women who first corrected their attire and then threatened that repeat behavior would be punished.

The relative of a European woman confined in the Annex with three children described her as more fearful than ever before. The woman had changed tents several times after a group of Tunisian and Indonesian women began threatening her upon learning that the family's lawyer was trying to bring her home, according to the relative.

"They threaten other women who either gave interviews and declared they were no longer supporting ISIS, or who are trying to return to their countries," the relative said.

As conditions deteriorate, the inhabitants remain in limbo. Some of the women want to return to their home countries, but few foreign governments are eager to take them back, fearing in part the risk that unrepentant Islamic State adherents might pose.

The SDF says it cannot be counted on to hold the camp residents indefinitely. But neither the United States — which ultimately holds sway in this corner of Syria — nor European and Arab allies have advanced a workable solution.

"Given that ISIS had women's units and also taught them how they should still spread the idea and ideals of the caliphate once they are back in their countries of origin, they are a serious risk to the society, so their children could be also," said an Arab intelligence official. Iraq has yet to repatriate tens of thousands of its citizens, and other governments are evacuating their nationals at a trickle. Eight American citizens were repatriated from the camp to the United States in June.

But aid agencies insist that the international community does not have the luxury of time and cite the dangers that al-Hol now poses to the children trapped inside it.

Aid workers from Save the Children, one of the largest organizations working with children in the camps of northeastern Syria, say they often show signs of deep trauma.

"The children who have been traumatized by living through all of this need a lot more than we can really offer in a camp," said Sonia Khush, the director in Syria for Save the Children.

"It's not only the missing out of school, it's the violence that women and children were exposed to. People talk about seeing the beheadings in the town square, seeing the heads roll around," she said.

Some of the women interviewed said they are no longer true believers, and some said they never were but had been coerced by radicalized husbands to go to the caliphate. Others, however, said they remained proud to have joined a group that tries to foster what it describes as an Islamic paradise.

In a video posted online in July, several women, fully veiled and holding the Islamic State's blackand-white banner, said they were delivering a message from al-Hol. "Brothers," one urges, "light the fire of jihad and free us from these prisons."

And then, addressing the "enemies of God," she says, "To you the women of the mujahedeen say: You think you have us imprisoned in your rotten camp. But we are a ticking bomb. Just you wait and see."