Meet Prince George’s County, Md.: A Case StudyThree hallmarks of higher education are teaching, research and service. In most instances, the service is relegated to a distant third in determining a college or university’s worth. Good teaching is a given, and the research is what brings in the money and the prestige.
The service aspect, however, on campus, in committee work, or off campus in community or civic involvement, is seldom a part of the reward system. And as long as this type of reward system exists, situations such as the ones described in our cover story will persist along with the estrangement between campuses and their communities.
Meet Prince George’s County, Md., and its three public institutions of higher education — the focus of our cover story.
Prince George’s County borders Washington, D.C., but unlike that city, in many areas, it has remained untapped in terms of residential construction and business development. As a result, the county serves as a respite for many — close enough to the nation’s capital, but far enough away to escape the city’s often crowded quarters. And in the past few decades, African American professionals, in particular, have flocked to Prince George’s County.
In the 19th century, the county’s economic base was built on a large number of tobacco plantations. It was an economy that depended heavily on slave labor, with the Black slave population constituting 60 percent of the county’s population. After the Civil War, of course, the county’s economy and the racial makeup of its population shifted drastically, but only to find itself, two centuries later, again home to a Black population of nearly 63 percent. It is a population that has come a long way from its slave ancestors, but no less hard working. And with an average household income of over $55,000, Prince George’s County has come to be known as the wealthiest Black suburb in the nation.
So far, it sounds as if Prince George’s County has it all. Yet, even with its hard-working residents, the county is like many communities, saddled with its share of problems. The most pressing of which is a troubled public school system, and what has been termed “an overly aggressive” police department.
Such ills have prompted its residents to look within, pointing first to the city’s own resources for the responsibility of its well-being. For many, it seems, that finger lands on the pulse of higher education. And in this realm, Prince George’s County does indeed have it all: A community college that serves over 35,000 students a year, the state’s oldest historically Black college, and a research I, doctoral-granting institution, that in recent years has attracted some of the nation’s top Black scholars. Prince George’s Community College, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland’s, College Park (the university system’s flagship campus) all lie right there, within the boundaries of Prince George’s County.
Unfortunately, for many, that finger also points to a disconnect between the two entities, with the colleges excelling in some of the very areas the county is struggling to correct. The situation brings to light an issue that, as reporter Paul Ruffins notes in our cover story, is not unique to Prince George’s County, but one that is ongoing in higher education: What role, if any, should public higher education institutions play in the surrounding community’s well-being?
Robin V. Smiles
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