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A Conspicuous Absence

A Conspicuous Absence

The nation’s capital not only has one of the highest unemployment rates, but is also the only big U.S. city without a stand-alone community college. Is there a connection?

 By David Pluviose

Every major city in every state in the country has a public community college, as do U.S. territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico. President Bush, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and civic and business leaders of all stripes are increasingly talking up community colleges as critical to training U.S. workers for ever-changing job needs in the global marketplace.

However, despite near-universal agreement that community colleges are instrumental to the prosperity of communities everywhere, one major city is lacking one —  the nation’s capital.

In 1977, Washington’s only two-year institution, Washington Technical Institute — which had opened in 1968 — was merged with the district’s Federal City College and Washington Teachers College to form the open-access University of the District of Columbia. The merger was part of a push for statehood and for equal access to higher education in the district, movements that had picked up steam in the 1960s.

The Sum of Its Parts
The unprecedented consolidation led to a decline in total students, from 14,000 in 1977 to less than 5,000 today, as well as to a decline in two-year offerings.

“We had a [vocational-technical school] with WTI, and we had a separate Federal City College, and what we argued — those of us who were on the other side from what the [UDC trustee] board did — was that the two-year programs were going to get lost, and that is indeed what has happened,” says Dr. Meredith E. Rode, a UDC professor of art who was a charter faculty member of Federal City College when it opened in 1968.

Dr. Rafael L. Cortada, a former president of UDC, says WTI’s two-year offerings were neglected by a UDC board of trustees that saw a community college as less glamorous than a university. Ironically, UDC’s campus was originally built for an expanding WTI in the early 1970s.
“UDC started with all of the two-year programs you had from WTI. But because of the board’s biases, they were starved to death, because the students were in effect told, ‘Oh, don’t go there, it’s not a real degree,’” he says.

“The associate degree programs then within UDC were excellent programs. … And many students who should have been taking a two-year technical program went on into baccalaureate programs to fail,” Cortada adds.

Population Explosion
According to “Marketing y Medios,” Washington’s Hispanic population has grown by 25 percent since 2001. U.S. Census projections indicate that the surge in the nation’s Hispanic population shows no signs of slowing down. Community colleges in areas just outside the district are enrolling substantial numbers of the city’s residents. For example, Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., enrolled 663 Washington, D.C., students last fall. Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., enrolled 233 students during the same term. The counties surrounding the city have also experienced rapid growth in their Hispanic populations, causing area community colleges to work double time to serve students from the counties and the district.

“Out of that 663, 18 percent are Hispanic. Surprisingly, 50 percent are Black. That’s a big number,” says Montgomery College-Rockville registrar Laura Ann Forest.

“We have had an explosion of the Hispanic population. Our normal population here at Rockville is 16,000 students a semester, give or take a few,” she says. “We increase at about 2.7 percent a semester in total enrollment. With that increase, 40 percent of it has been Hispanic, collegewide. So when 40 percent of your population growth is Hispanic, that’s a huge indicator, because our Black [population growth] was only 15 percent, which is still big.”

Dr. Robert Vaughn, the director of workforce development at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus, says NVCC is having trouble finding instructors due to the population increase of two particular immigrant groups.

“From the workforce development standpoint, we market throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and our program is open to any students from the metropolitan D.C. area. … We have a concern about not only the Hispanic population, but a very large and growing Korean population.”

The lack of community college vocational training has and will continue to hurt employment opportunities for the district’s residents, including the increasing number of Hispanics emigrating to the area, Cortada says.

“What is D.C. doing now to address the problem of the new immigrant population? They’re not going to go away, and they are having children. And those children aren’t going anywhere,” he says. “So in addition to the Black underclass that has been stiffed, mistreated and ignored for years, now you’re going to have a Hispanic underclass on the other side of town. It’s really no way to run a city.”

Joblessness among the district’s Hispanic population could contribute to other societal ills, Forest says.

“Not only is this population exploding, but it’s a very poor population,” she notes. “So are they going to turn to crime? Yeah, to some extent they are. When you come into the situation and your back’s against the wall and you have nothing and there’s thousands of you and you don’t have a place to live or a decent job, then crime’s just going to go up.”

If Washington, D.C., is compared with states that have approximately the same number of residents, the city is alone in having only one public institution of higher education. Wyoming, for instance, has a four-year school and seven two-year colleges; Vermont has five four-year schools and one two-year school; and North Dakota, with approximately 80,000 more residents than the district, has six public four-year colleges and seven two-year institutions.

While Rode, who made the same point in a 1997 opinion piece in The Washington Post, concedes that the district is not a state, she contends that its population of more than half a million “surely deserve[s] public higher education opportunities as much as the people of Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota.”

Does Anybody Care?
At the end of the day, UDC’s woes stem from a severe lack of appropriated higher ed dollars — a priority in every other city and state, Rode says. However, Washington is unique in that the U.S. Congress has the final say over the district’s laws and budget, and holds veto power over decisions made by the city.

Dr. Sydney O. Hall, UDC’s current university senate president and a professor in the department of education, says support for public education is lacking in the district. “That to me is at the crux of the issue. Commitment, and the willingness and desire of people in the city to really put the money where the mouth is,” he says. “It boils down to commitment and priorities. Is it going to be all development — corporations and companies — or are we going to really tend to the educational needs of the citizens of the district?”

The children of the city’s sizeable commuter work force benefit from respected Maryland and Virginia higher education systems. And through the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants Program, part of the D.C. College Access Act of 1999, better-prepared district students can attend any public college in the nation at in-state tuition rates. But it is a system that leaves the remaining district student population, mostly low-income minorities, struggling to find postsecondary education, Cortada says. Forest says about one-third of Montgomery College’s Washington students are enrolled in the D.C. Tuition Assistance program, but getting the word out to the city’s immigrant residents has been a challenge.
“A lot of times, I think that the benefits are out there, and nobody’s helping them find the benefits. And if you don’t know the language, it only makes it that much more difficult.”

However, Vaughn says NVCC has had great success reaching Washington area Hispanic and Korean immigrants. The college teamed up with a marketing firm that ran advertisements in Spanish- and Korean-language  media outlets.

“We found through using this outside marketing agency that we could market extensively to the Korean population through the print media, and the Hispanic population through the radio and television,” Vaughn says. “That was news to us because we just thought it was in our flyers. But they seem to have a different way that they get information and react to it.”

Muddying The Waters
In response to massive UDC student protests in 1999 and a march on Capitol Hill to oppose the Tuition Assistance Program, which the students believed put their college at a disadvantage, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, promised to get UDC recognized as a historically Black university under the College Access Act. The move, enabling UDC to receive Title III funds, was meant to mollify outrage over the program, as well as over a controversial — and now-scuttled — plan to move UDC out of the predominately White northwest quadrant of the city to the other side of the Anacostia River in the mostly Black southeast quadrant, says Rode.

UDC’s designation as an HBCU has historical roots in the Minor Normal School for Colored Girls, founded in 1851, 11 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Minor was one of two segregated schools merged in 1955 to form D.C. Teachers College, following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling ending legal segregation in education.

“The HBCU designation was given, in a way, as a buyoff so that there wasn’t a great protest with the Tuition Assistance Grant, which pays students to go anywhere except UDC. I call it the ‘Escaping UDC Bill,’” Rode says.

According to Cortada, the HBCU designation further complicated efforts to establish a community college in the city, given that the two entities would both serve large numbers of ethnic minorities, possibly creating competition and conflict.

 “Community colleges are urban. And very often, minority students will look to a community college as the nearest available best option,” he says. “The HBCUs at one time were that option. But what they don’t see is that community colleges are dealing with a much broader clientele than the HBCUs ever did. If anything, the HBCUs should have seen community colleges as opening up new populations for them,” he says, referring to the potential for transfers to HBCUs.

“In my view, the White population, a long time ago, said ‘[UDC] is not for us,’” Rode adds. “As opportunities spread more for middle-class Blacks, they said ‘It’s not for us either.’ So the high school counselors recommend students not to come to UDC, so the support just hasn’t been there.”

Dr. Wilmer L. Johnson, who served as UDC’s acting provost and was also the first president of UDC’s  university senate, agrees. “On average, most states spend about $10,500 per student for a public higher education experience. You know what the district spends? About $5,000. Half. The city hasn’t really taken public higher education very seriously, and it hurts me to say that.”

Been There, Done That
None of this is due to a lack of ideas on how to best serve the higher education needs of the district’s residents. In the 1980s, Dr. J. Herman Blake, former vice chancellor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and previously director of African American studies at Iowa State University, was brought in to chair former Mayor Marion Barry’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education. That commission ultimately recommended the establishment of a community college in the city.

“I was invited to chair that commission because I was not a part of any constituency in D.C. And it was the first time they had an outsider chair a commission. … I think we did a pretty good job, but I stayed away from the politics,” Blake says.

The commission’s report, “The Urgent Challenge: Educational Excellence for All,” recommended the formation of a community college as part of a comprehensive system of public postsecondary education in the city. And in a Washington Post editorial in 1988, Blake wrote, “The recommendation isn’t new. The Chase Report of 1964 and the Little Report of 1971 made essentially the same proposals. Each saw the establishment of a community college as part of a system along with a four-year university, a graduate program and a research unit.”

Every time the district received an official recommendation on how to improve higher education, nothing happened, “because as soon as they get to the end of the report, they say, ‘Well, where’s the money? Well, there’s no money, we’ll put it in the drawer,’” Hall says.

The Bottom Line
Lack of funds continued to be an issue throughout the 1990s, when the D.C. Financial Control Board, created by Congress to reverse the city’s deep financial troubles, ordered UDC leaders to close an $18.2 million budget gap by September 1997. This effectively cut UDC’s operating budget in half, forcing the school to lay off 125 professors, an unprecedented action and one from which UDC hasn’t yet fully recovered.

“I think the 1997 budget cut was devastating, and I do blame our board of trustees at that time,” says Rode. “They may say they went to bat for us, but there had to be somebody to stand up and say, ‘You can’t do this to our university.’ Those kinds of budgets cuts would not have happened at another state university.”

Hall says the halving of UDC’s funds dealt a severe blow to any efforts to start a community college within UDC.

“The university, unlike [in the] states, is it. You go to other states and you have four and five and 10 public colleges, and it boils a lot down to resources. … No matter what you want to do, if your budget is cut the way our budget has been cut, that really defines, to a large degree, what you’re going to be able to do, what you’re not going to be able to do,” he says. “There’s a tremendous need for a community college effort within the university, but people are going to have to become more committed to it.”

Though Barry, now a city councilman in the district, supported the recommendation of his commission to create a community college when he was mayor, his current education spokesman, Vaun Cleveland, says the city does not need a community college. But the money is there. Washington has a projected budget surplus of $162.8 million for the most recent fiscal year, in contrast to the wrenching fiscal woes the city experienced in the 1980s.

“If there’s something that’s already there, already put in place for that, it should just be doing a better job, better oversight, better management. And UDC is actually progressing to sort of perform that function. I know that it’s a university, but they’re supposed to also function as a two-year college. They do now, they just need to do a better job of it,” Cleveland says. “There are limited resources for a reason, and if you created another institution it would actually even make the resources more scarce.”

According to Rode, one of the most damaging legacies of the UDC consolidation has been that the merging of three institutions, each with separate identities and missions, has led to a confused mission for UDC.  Merging these three distinct college missions “was a mistake. It may have been for egalitarian reasons that it would be good for everybody to mix together, but how are you going to support your programs? How are you going to make sure that people really understand what your mission is? We still talk about our mission here,” she says.

To this day, UDC officials claim that the school can be everything to everybody in terms of higher education.

“The district already has a community college, and that’s us,” says UDC spokesman Mike Andrews. But many of the college’s educators, past and present, disagree.

When asked if UDC could indeed be “all things to all people,” Johnson says, “We cannot be. … There are a lot of needs out here we’re not meeting. We can’t meet them all in the rubric of a university and be respected by other universities as turning out high-caliber university students. It’s not gonna happen.”

Dr. Steven J. Diner, provost of Rutgers University-Newark, who taught at both Federal City College and UDC, sounds a similar note.

“I think UDC had too complicated a mission to succeed,” he says. “It’s very hard for the community college mission to survive within a comprehensive university that offers baccalaureates and master’s degrees. It’ll get squeezed out, and indeed that’s what happened at UDC. This was not only bad for the open enrollment students who needed a community college, it was bad for the comprehensive university as well.”

Several studies of the city’s higher education system have concluded that the problems could be solved with a state-like comprehensive higher education system, one that features separate two-year, four-year and graduate components.

“We, the District of Columbia, at this point in its life, need a university system,” Johnson says. “I think the District of Columbia is at that point in its development where it needs that kind of structure, a system that [accommodates] everybody in the District of Columbia who would like to get something beyond K-12 in that system.”

Vaughn says he is frustrated by being unable to set up a NVCC campus in the city itself, which he says would solve the transportation problems that keep many district residents from attending classes regularly.

“We’re supposed to handle wherever the need is, and we see that need there. But how do you access it with the constraints that we’re working in today? There needs to be maybe one, maybe two community colleges in D.C. proper.”

Blake views community colleges as the “salvation of this country … We must move out of our educational elitism — the community colleges are ‘the stone which the builders rejected.’ We will learn — hopefully soon.”

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