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‘16 Colleges With One Voice’

Maryland community colleges work together to respond to the state’s education and economic needs.

President Barack Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, the pledge of $12 billion for America’s community colleges over a 10-year span, delighted Maryland offi cials because the state’s community-college enrollment is growing at more than 4 percent a year while public and personal budgets are shrinking.

“We now have a moment in the sun where people understand what we do and our value to the economy,” says Dr. Brian K. Johnson, president of the 59,000-student Montgomery County Community College.

With 16 community colleges serving the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore, community colleges are a high priority in Maryland.

“They (the governor and state lawmakers) realize community colleges are really critical all across the state to help people help themselves in these rough times,” says Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, the organization of the state’s community college presidents. “Nearly every lawmaker can claim a connection to a local community college.”

Maryland’s public higher education system allows schools and their students to clear operational hurdles fast and outpace many states in serving the nearly 500,000 people who take courses at one of the state’s community colleges each year.

Most counties have a public community college, no private colleges and only one public school system. These factors help community colleges establish what Whitlow calls “seamless relationships,” with their local county school system on a range of fronts from taking college courses for credit in high school to more clearly articulating local, low-cost, post-high school options.

In addition, all of the state’s four-year public universities, except two, are part of the University System of Maryland. With one policy covering most of the state’s four-year colleges, the university system and the 16 community colleges have developed one of the nation’s best transfer relationships.

Community college presidents also meet informally once a month to discuss their respective and collective needs and ideas. They are looking to partner on projects of mutual interest, such as new programs for students or sharing construction dollars for new facilities. For example, when Montgomery County Community College received federal stimulus funds this year to help fi nance some of its “shovel ready” building projects, it returned much of its state allocation for capital projects to the state which, in turn, reallocated funds to other community colleges that didn’t receive federal funds.

“Historically, we would be in competition” for funds and programs, says Dr. Charlene W. Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College. “We understand the world is bigger than the counties in which we reside.”

 “There isn’t any elbowing at the table,” Johnson adds. “People get it and we support each other. We call it 16 colleges with one voice.”

The structure of the state’s education system — its evolving internal policies and practices and the schools’ close relationship with their respective communities — keeps the schools grounded and in touch with the real-time needs and opportunities in their local markets.

In predominantly Black Prince George’s County, for example, a decision by county offi cials early in the decade to develop the county’s waterfront in conjunction with Gaylord Entertainment included a key role for the county’s community college. Prince George’s Community College is training workers for jobs at what is now National Harbor, a 300-acre retail, hotel, offi ce and convention complex on the banks of the Potomac River.

With $1 million from Gaylord, PGCC has turned its “fledgling” culinary arts program with about 75 students fi ve years ago into an aggressive and growing program with more than 400 students offering several two-year degrees in culinary arts and hospitality, internships, job counseling and placement. To make the program work while keeping costs in check, the college works with several local high schools and restaurants to use their cafeteria facilities for training. To ensure the program is meeting industry needs and standards, the program also has an advisory board of established local executives in the hospitality industry. The school also leveraged its Gaylord money to secure a $2.4 million training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Dukes cites the appeal of the culinary arts program as an example of how Maryland community colleges meet real-time needs of the community.

“Even in the midst of tough times, you have to be visionary, looking at the future,” she says.

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