Maryland community colleges pledge to increase degree earners

Heeding call from Obama, group wants 7,300 more students annually to earn degrees by 2025

December 03, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Leaders from the state's community colleges pledged Friday to substantially increase the number of students earning associate's degrees across the state by 2025 following a federal directive to ramp up the number of college graduates nationwide.

The Maryland Association of Community Colleges, made up of college presidents from the state's 16 community colleges, signed the pledge to increase the annual number of students earning degrees from two-year colleges by 7,300 students statewide. About 12,000 students currently earn an associate's degree or program certificate each year.

The college officials announced their efforts at a gathering to examine how to increase the number of community college students who earn degrees or certificates, at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold.

The pledge is in response to President Barack Obama's 2009 challenge for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. The summit mirrored the White House's recent Summit on Community Colleges, hosted by Jill Biden, the vice president's wife and a longtime community college professor. Maryland has been a leading state in the effort to answer the president's challenge, despite stagnant state funding even as enrollment at community colleges has increased.

H. Clay Whitlow, executive director of the association, called the statewide goal "ambitious, but not unrealistic."

Enrollments at the state's community colleges have risen sharply in the past three years, chiefly because of the economic downturn. More high-schoolers are opting to spend two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year school as a cost-saving option, officials said. In addition, members of the work force and those who might have lost jobs are turning to community colleges to learn new skills.

But the increased enrollments haven't brought more funding. Murray K. "Ray" Hoy, president of Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, said the unfunded growth makes increasing the number of degree earners "especially challenging."

"We've seen students knocking on our doors who would have normally [gone] to a four-year school," said Hoy. With the influx of students, Hoy said, "Cutting services just doesn't make sense."

Carol W. Eaton, chair of the association and president of Frederick Community College, said the group plans to share "best practices" on how to increase student success. For example, some of the persistent barriers to completing a degree at the community college level are common life difficulties, such as a broken-down car or a sick child. Eaton said the colleges have figured out ways to help with those problems, such as offering online courses.

Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said in the past three years, enrollment at her institution has increased by 40 percent, but it has only received level funding from the state and county.

"It has prompted us to do our best in being efficient while providing an excellent education and at the same time asking, where can we cut costs?" she said.

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