Community college crunch

January 29, 2003|By Irving Pressley McPhail

IF THE University System of Maryland is the barometer for predicting the impact of this state's budget deficit on area colleges and universities, then storm clouds are in our midst.

Bracing for more budget cuts, the university system's Board of Regents on Thursday imposed a 5 percent midyear tuition increase unprecedented in the system's 15-year history. Such difficult, pre-emptive moves are inevitable for colleges and universities across a nation grappling with a faltering economy.

Community colleges, however, face an even dimmer scenario: diminishing state funds even as enrollments grow. Indeed, community colleges will bear the greatest burden as students are priced out of the state's four-year colleges and universities and newly laid-off workers flock to our campuses for retraining.

The expectation is that community colleges will, once again, perform well and maintain an affordable price despite the shortage of resources. In other words, we'll continue to do more with less.

Is it possible? Perhaps, but not without some hard choices and clarity of vision.

As suggested by a number of national reports, the time may have come when community colleges no longer can be all things to all people. Instead, we must focus on what we do best and on what our students - and, ultimately, our communities - need most. That's quite a challenge for a segment of higher education that tries to do so much and serve so many.

The multiplicity of the community college mission, characterized by an open-door policy and a good-neighbor philosophy, has contributed to our popularity and our propensity to be misunderstood, if not ignored, by our colleagues at four-year institutions.

Increasing budget pressures may force us - and others - to view our mission differently. While hoping for the best and planning for the worst, Maryland's community colleges have already made tough decisions. Containment measures have included travel freezes, limits on hiring, limits on course offerings, increased class sizes and, unfortunately, tuition increases.

At the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), we realize that we cannot sit idle and let others shape our destiny. We've made structural changes that, although painful, will free about $1.5 million over the next two years to help fuel our priorities and preserve our core programs and services.

By eliminating low-enrolled credit programs and reducing positions throughout the college, we're able to redesign academic and work-force training programs to meet the region's most critical needs. For example, we're merging credit and noncredit programs to launch new schools of allied health, applied and information technology and criminal justice, public safety and legal studies.

We are also serving more of the neediest college students, both in the socioeconomic and academic sense. This year, minority student credit enrollment climbed nearly 8 percent. This growth places a stronger demand on CCBC in developmental education, financial aid and learning support. Closing the achievement gap for this population requires new approaches that engage students and consider their preferred learning styles.

Such initiatives are the foundation of CCBC's "Learning First" vision. What may seem expected - that a college places learning first - is not so obvious. Recall your own school experiences when you passively took a back seat to "instruction." No one cared what you knew or could do. Certainly, no one took into account how you learned best. You were there "to be taught." Such a traditional and all-too-typical classroom environment is both uninviting and unrewarding. It neither encourages nor celebrates learning.

At CCBC and other community colleges across the nation, we are redefining what we do, how we do it and when we do it by the needs of our learners. Ultimately, we gauge our success by the success of each individual.

Such a holistic, institutionalized focus on learning will certainly help us weather the impending fiscal storm.

However, without more public funding, there is only so much growth we can sustain while staying true to our core mission of providing high-quality education to all who can benefit.

Irving Pressley McPhail is chancellor of the Community College of Baltimore County.

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