The community college mission

February 11, 2003

HARFORD Community College wants to become the first community college in Maryland to offer four-year degree programs.

If they can only get a foot in the door, officials promise, they won't aspire to be Harford University, with a panoply of bachelor's degree programs. But if Harford gets what it wants, the state's 15 other community colleges surely will seek similar authority, and eventually these schools will want the door wide open.

It's that middle name - community - that distinguishes the state's two-year colleges from their four-year brethren. Harford is a case in point. Responding to community needs - and often working hand-in-hand with business and government - the school offers 43 areas of study, from criminal justice to interior design, as well as numerous programs in which students earn the credentials they need for a job or a raise. Courses in these programs may range from a few weeks to a few months.

Yes, Harford has its share of traditional "transfer" students who earn associate's degrees and move on to four-year colleges. But community college students in this economy tend to be older than traditional students, employed, married with children and taking courses at night. Many are people who are changing careers or retooling after a layoff. (This is why community colleges thrive in a sour economy.) More than a quarter of Maryland's 120,000 community college students are in programs that don't lead to a certificate or a degree.

Harford already has a Higher Education and Applied Technology Center (known as the HEAT Center), where several out-of-county colleges, public and independent, offer courses leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees. The HEAT Center hasn't been as popular as some of the participating schools had hoped when it opened in 1995, but it's a rare example of public and private cooperation, and if there's demand for a program Harford wants to expand to four years, one of the HEAT consortium members could offer it at the center.

Community colleges have a specific mission that's still valid and that's not shared by four-year schools. Harford, by all accounts, is succeeding in that mission. Trying to become something fundamentally different is a waste of the school's energy.

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