Enrollment, buildings going up

Community colleges' growth spurred by rising cost of universities

October 15, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN REPORTER

In a bright, spacious classroom in Howard Community College's new visual and performing arts building, a trio of musicians admire the difference from their old rehearsal spaces in trailers and basements.

"Now we have practice rooms - instead of just a room where everyone can hear you mess up," said Keith Northover, of Brentwood, of the light-bathed rehearsal rooms, part of a capital building boom bringing bigger, better-equipped facilities to community colleges around the state.

With the cost of four-year colleges reaching new heights, community colleges are seeing higher enrollment, demands for new programs and crowding in their facilities. The state's capital budget for fiscal 2007 includes $55 million for community colleges, money that was mostly matched by county contributions.

As a group, community colleges plan to request more than $123 million in state funds for fiscal year 2008 - "by far more than we've asked for ever in history," said H. Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. New buildings have sprouted up in Howard, Carroll, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, among other community colleges.

The funding surge is a sharp contrast to the picture 10 years ago. According to the community college association, the state authorized a little more than $28 million in fiscal year 1996 and $4 million a decade before that.

And it coincides with an enrollment boom. In 2005, the state's 16 community college systems enrolled just more than 119,000 for-credit students. The pool of first-time, full-time community college freshmen jumped nearly 23 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, driven heavily by graduating high school seniors.

Community colleges are growing by adding programs and by promoting themselves as places where students can get a quality education, said Alan Schuman, executive vice president of administration at Carroll Community College.

"It isn't just that it is convenient or it's affordable," he said. "We've told [students] they can come here and get the first two years [of their education], which, from a quality perspective, is equal to what you get at a university. ... I do think that the community colleges have put greater emphasis on getting the message out."

As the University of Maryland and other four-year institutions become more selective - and more expensive - a significant pool of students is left seeking a more affordable local choice. Aware of those pressures, most of Maryland's four-year schools have "articulation agreements" to ease transfers from community colleges.

Adding to that pressure are those seeking to improve their job skills or change careers, including in the areas of homeland security, health care and technology. Administrators say the influx of military jobs into Maryland from the federal military base realignment moves likely will add to that trend.

Community college administrators say that more students trying to fit into over-enrolled classes make it difficult to keep up with their mission of open access. In addition, they need to provide the up-to-date science labs, computer facilities, visual and performing arts spaces and other equipment that students expect.

Montgomery College President Charlene R. Nunley said the younger full-time students "bring a wonderful dynamic into the institution, but they also escalate the need for facilities." They want food services, places to study, athletic activities, student clubs and other elements commonly found at colleges and universities.

Whitlow, of the community college association, said that because community colleges are "going through a maturation process as institutions," the challenge is to get policymakers to take a role in keeping them vibrant and affordable.

Overall, Whitlow said, the signs are good. Capital funding has increased, as has operational funding, and the results are evident statewide.

Howard Community College opened the Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center in August, even as construction workers hammered and drilled next door on a student services building set to open in February.

Montgomery College opened a student services center at its Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus this year and is transforming a former commercial bakery at that location into a cultural arts center.

Elsewhere, a 77,000-square-foot classroom building at Carroll Community College, a new library at the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus, an expansion of Harford Community College's science building and a facilities building at Anne Arundel Community College are among the projects being designed or built.

On a recent day, 16-year-old Tasha Beyzavi sat down to use a new piano at Howard Community College and recalled how the trailers previously used were too cold in winter..

"It is such a difference," said the Hammond High School junior, who takes voice and piano lessons through the college's Music and Arts Center. She said she would consider attending HCC, even though she is looking at the Peabody Conservatory as a top choice.

"It is a nice college to go to and get your general education credits and transfer," she said.

Northover, 20, switched to HCC from the University of Maryland when he changed his major to music; he said he was drawn by the school's reputation in the arts.

"I think our practice rooms are nicer [than at the University of Maryland]," he said.

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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