High demand, tight budgets at 2-year schools

Community colleges feel burden as university standards toughen

Slumping economy noted

April 20, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Last fall, Prince George's Community College turned away more than 630 students who wanted to take pre-nursing classes. More than 1,000 aspiring teachers were turned away, too.

And it wasn't because of poor grades or test scores. It was because the classes were already full.

Community colleges -- long mandated with accepting all reasonably qualified students -- are finding that task more difficult than ever at a time of skyrocketing applications and tight budgets.

"Our sections are reaching capacity at a much faster rate now than in the past," said Irving Pressley McPhail, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, the state's second-largest community college system. "We are experiencing situations where classes are closing earlier, which means students are not able to enroll in the courses that they want."

These two-year institutions come under intense pressure when the economy slumps. Enrollment goes up because people who can't find jobs decide to hone their skills in school instead. But budgets, which rely on state and local funds, are squeezed.

"It's a very terrible dilemma," said McPhail, whose system has nearly 20,000 full- and part-time students.

Adding to the problem in Maryland is the increasing competitiveness of the state university system, which has raised its admission standards and its tuition prices. That means students who can't afford state institutions -- or don't get accepted to them -- often opt for their local community college for the first two years of higher education.

According to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, more than half of resident undergraduate students attend community colleges, and the number is rising. In the fall of 1998, community colleges had 104,459 students; in the fall of 2002, that number had risen to 114,702 students.

Faced with facilities that are hard-pressed to serve such a booming population, community college presidents are finding new ways to raise money and cut costs.

CCBC, for example, has cut unpopular programs, increased class sizes, and implemented travel freezes and other cost-saving measures. Howard Community College has increased its online offerings in order to serve more students, and offers combinations of online and campus classes.

`Whatever it takes'

"As we have in the past, when we didn't have space or didn't have money, we try our best to accommodate the people who need us," said HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan, whose college has about 6,000 students. "I guess the bottom line is, whatever it takes."

But the college presidents also argue that community colleges are more essential than ever to the economic health of the communities they serve and warn that they will falter without adequate funding.

Community colleges first came into existence about 45 years ago to provide education for students unable or unwilling to attend more selective four-year institutions. Also, they are intended to be a lower-cost alternative to four-year schools. Tuition in the Baltimore County system, for example, is $71 per credit for county residents, $126 out-of-county and $181 for out-of-state students.

`Open access'

But unlike four-year institutions, which can pick and choose among applicants, community colleges are required by state law to provide "programs that afford open access to persons with a variety of educational backgrounds." That can make getting into popular programs a first-come, first-served scramble.

Ronald Williams, president of Prince George's Community College, says the explosive growth in the popularity of community colleges means he is forced to turn away increasing numbers of students.

"That's the way I see the door closing," said Williams, whose system has nearly 13,000 students. "It's not the standards that have changed so much, it's the fact that we have no more teachers and no more space. ... I think that's a major problem."

Three years ago, for example, his college expanded its program to train teachers to a full department and added three faculty members to the existing two. But those changes weren't enough to make room for all the students who wanted to attend.

Schools' partnership

So he and other community colleges are finding innovative ways to meet the challenge of increased enrollment at a time of tight funding.

Williams, for example, has partnered with Howard Community College and the University of Baltimore to create the Laurel College Center in Prince George's County, which serves as a campus for all three schools.

For the Laurel College Center, college officials sought and won a waiver from the legislature allowing out-of-county students to pay the same price as in-county students.

The three-story, 27-classroom facility, which opened in the fall of 2001, now serves about 1,200 credit and noncredit students.

"It would have been hard for either of us to do it alone," Duncan said of her partnership with Williams. "He thought it would make sense for us to combine resources."

Fund raising

Also new for community colleges are capital campaigns, long a pillar of financial support for four-year institutions. Howard Community College recently started its first capital campaign and hopes to raise $6 million for scholarships and buildings.

"The fact that we have `community' in our name means we are trying to pay attention to the needs of our people, right here, right now," Duncan said.

`Alternative' support

The Community College of Baltimore County also has begun a fund-raising campaign, and has gone so far as to hire a vice chancellor for institutional advancement, Bruce Berman, to organize these efforts. The money will be used primarily for facilities and other capital projects, McPhail said.

"We realize that the time has come for the CCBC to seek alternative sources of support," he said.

Berman said he hopes to make local businesses and community members realize that they need the skilled workers provided by community colleges. "We are an economic development tool," he said.

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