The corridors were highly polished, the walls freshly painted, and the six-step registration process was mapped out in big black numbers. But the most important change at the New Community College of Baltimore last week proved to be the steady stream of students who passed by its newly manicured lawns to plunk down money for courses.
The two-year college, shunned by city residents who paid money to study at competing institutions for most of the 1980s, was taken over by the state last year in a final attempt to improve it or close it. Last week, officials reported that enrollment has increased for the first time in seven years.
For the academic year that ended June 30, enrollment was up 3.4 percent, officials said. And in the first three days of registration for the fall term last week, 4,050 students -- 20 percent more than last year -- signed up for classes.
While the increase won't be nearly so dramatic when the final tally is made this fall, the large numbers in the first week of registration are being taken as a sign that the upward swing is here to stay.
"It looks very much like it's up," said NCCB President James D. Tschechtelin, who is leading the college's turnaround.
Officials and students give any number of reasons for the current increase, which is being felt at both the Liberty Heights and Inner Harbor campuses. These include stepped-up recruiting at churches and neighborhood events; a $50,000 radio and newspaper advertising campaign; a ban on enrolling after classes start, a practice that educators say increases the chances of student failure; and a renewed optimism about the college that is slowly filtering out to the community.
"They had the program I wanted," said Denise Douglas, 18. Guidance counselors at Forest Park High School told her about NCCB's new secretarial science course, she said, and the college "sent me a package."
Interviewed as they inched forward in registration lines Thursday, several students said they chose NCCB because it was close to their homes and affordable. In some cases they chose it over competing schools in Catonsville and Essex.
"I heard they had 25 years' experience in their nursing program, and it's good for single mothers," said Deborah Bebber, 32, of East Baltimore, a mother of three.
"I'm on welfare, and I want off. I want a good job," she said.
The enrollment growth comes even before the college puts in place a major overhaul of its curriculum and other policies to improve academics that were approved by college trustees at a marathon meeting Wednesday.
They include a computer literacy requirement -- a rarity for any college -- and a quality assurance program for students and employers starting in the fall of 1992. If an employer is not satisfied with a student's work, the college would provide an additional 15 credits of instruction free to either the graduate or an employer. Students who can't find a job within 60 days of graduation would be entitled to the same extra free course work.
The comprehensive plan for the future of NCCB now goes to state higher education officials. The General Assembly also will review the plan and decide next spring whether last year's state takeover has been successful and the law creating it should be continued.
Already, the college has seen significant changes designed to improve quality, including a revamped evaluation and contract system for faculty, a redesigned academic structure and a special budget this year to refurbish student and faculty space and add day care.
"Even the food is better," said Abracena Harrison, 32, an accounting major who expects to earn her associate degree in May and transfer to a four-year college to become a certified public accountant.
She said instructors make sure students have goals and stay on track.
In her case, she has already started her own business: keeping the books for a local newspaper distributor.
Ms. Harrison said her experience with NCCB has led her to encourage her friends, especially young people, to enroll.
"Everybody wants to try to better themselves," she said. "But sometimes people just don't know how."
Kimberly Staton, 19, who wants to be an emergency medical technician, said she heard about NCCB's program in the health services field from a woman who lives in her apartment building.
She planned to enroll in a six-credit certificate program Thursday morning but, after speaking with an adviser, she enrolled in the two-year degree program instead.
"In hiring, a person with a degree comes first," she said.
One sign of change on campus is that things work "four times as quick, and the staff is more cooperative," said Adrian Frazier, 22, who transferred to NCCB 1 1/2 years ago from Catonsville Community College to earn a degree in computer programming.
"Its reputation is borderline, but it is moving up the scale slowly but surely, especially after the state takeover."