The City Without a Community College

August 13, 2008

Community colleges nationwide can point to ways they improve their students' and communities' standard of living. In Washington, D.C., a city without a community college, this point is moot until educators and politicians can agree on just how to proceed establishing such an institution. In this case, everyone is a critic.

Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that while the overall population of the city has not risen dramatically in the past decade, the number of jobs in the city has risen notably. There are almost 700,000 jobs in the D.C., Lang said, but only about a third of them are filled by its residents. Close to 400,000 people commute into the city for work and then leave it to return home. As D.C. is the only city in the U.S. that cannot tax non-resident income, the city loses a significant amount of potential tax revenue every year from these commuters, even as many in the city are unemployed or underemployed.

The advantage of establishing a community college in D.C. is twofold, Lang argued. As more residents prepare to serve in the many jobs that the city has to offer, she said the city will be able to tap into this potential income tax stream. Additionally, she stresses that a more equipped and localized workforce will reduce reliance on city services by individuals currently not skilled enough take jobs. Instead of establishing an entirely distinct community college in the city, Lang said the city should make use of the resources it already has in place at its sole public institution, the open-access University of the District of Columbia.

“We should start it under the UDC umbrella but put firewalls in place," Land said. "It has to be a separate organization with different professors and its own board of directors, but it should be incubated within UDC. Then, at some point later, we can do an assessment to see whether it can break free from UDC.”

The Many Options

Lang’s suggestion is one of three possible options the city can pursue to establish a community college, all of which are chronicled in a June report published by the Brookings Institution. Since its publication, the report has generated considerable discussion. Martha Ross, senior research manager for Brookings’ Greater Washington Research Project, said though the study was not commissioned by the city, she and her colleagues at Brookings wanted to have an impact on the city’s direction. She noted that, in previous institution research on how to strengthen education in D.C., a community college was considered one of the key pieces and viewed worthy of a separate study of its own.

According to the Brookings report, of the 50 largest cities in the U.S., D.C. is the only one without a full fledged community college. Ross said it is important to note that UDC acts both as a community college and a state institution. Though UDC offers some two-year degree programs, she said its infrastructure does not support the high quality of these programs as it would prefer.

“If UDC is going to be a vehicle for a community college, it would need to make major structural changes,” Ross said. “Two-year programs are organized in the same departments as four-year programs. There needs to be a head of the community college division who can hire and has budget authority. We do have concerns that even with a community college embedded in a larger state institution that it will have trouble and not be a priority. It’s hard for one institution to give weight to two such different educational enterprises.”

Instead of strengthening the two-year programs at UDC, Ross said the Brookings report recommends the city establish a new, freestanding community college. Currently, it is working with the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the local chapter of a national non-profit public policy group promoting access to education and justice, on a feasibility study to determine how much this would cost and how the city might open a college.

Judith Berman, Appleseed’s deputy director, said a major reason for the study is to build some momentum in the public sector around the need for an increase in community college capacity. Though the Brookings report favors a new institution, the Appleseed Center has yet to take an official stance, preferring to be an advocate for the idea of a community college until further research is done.

“We fully recognize that UDC has problem with its administration,” Berman said of incubating a community college or establishing it within the public university. “Whether those concerns raise it to the point where it disqualifies it from being a part of a community college is not something we’ve settled on as an institution.”

Considering the option of opening a new institution, Ross acknowledged that there may be some concern that a new community college would both divert some financial resources away from UDC and be in competition with it for students. If the city devotes its resources and generates enough political support to create a community college, Ross said, it could then focus on strengthening the four-year and graduate programs at UDC, clarifying the institution's cloudy mission.

The Role of History

Meredith Rode, interim chair of the mass media, visual and performing arts at UDC, concurs with a number of the report’s findings and readily expressed her concern to Brookings scholars about what she perceives to have been a litany of past mistakes in D.C. higher education. Rode has been an art professor in D.C. since 1968 and worked at Federal City College, the pre-UDC four-year institution the city founded as a result of a government study. At that time D.C. also had Washington Technical Institute, a two-year vocational school, which was founded by the Chase Commission and opened in 1968. These two institutions were merged with the District of Columbia Teacher's College to form UDC in 1977. Rode was present for this rapid consolidation, which she says is to blame for most of today's problems at UDC and the lack of a community college in the city.

“It caused great chaos internally and was done very quickly,” Rode said of the consolidation. “They crammed together three institutions with very different goals and faculty. It’s haunted us to this day. It’s very difficult now to go back and do it right because UDC has labored low these many years under, basically, an untenable structure. It has cost us academic reputation and lost us some two-year programs. I think had Washington Technical Institute been allowed to be the community college, that it would have flourished and that Federal City College would have evolved into a university.”

Stanley Jackson, UDC’s acting president, said there were good intentions in consolidating the city’s two- and four-year programs under one institution. He added, however, that this merger led to dual missions which have since become significantly blurred. Greater attention was paid to the four-year programs than the two-year programs, Jackson said. As UDC has an open-admission policy, Jackson said about 70 percent of its incoming students require some sort of remediation. A new community college, he said, would not necessarily be a conflict for UDC, adding that it could potentially improve its matriculation, graduation and consistency rates. While it is premature to say that UDC would eliminate its open-admission policy if there were a new community college, Jackson said that possibility would be considered. There would be value added for UDC in the creation of a new two-year institution, he said.

“Clearly, we certainly acknowledge the tremendous need for an institution in this city,” Jackson said of all the community college talk in D.C. “I’m not wedded to the fact that it has to be at [UDC]. It has the potential to incubate here. Still, I’m in support of having a community college in the District.”

Incorporating Private Institutions

For all of its proponents, there are also some in D.C. who don’t see the need for a new institution, whether incubated or associated with UDC or not. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University in D.C., a private institution with an undergraduate women's college that tends to serve low-income female residents of the city, said though the discussion of a new community college comes with the best of intentions, she thinks it may be a bit misleading.

“I don’t think it’s that there aren’t enough seats for residents,” McGuire said of the report’s reasoning for recommending a new community college. “I’m puzzled how a new institution is going to help the situation that the proponents of this claim say exists. I’m not sure that the solution to the problem is that we should create a whole new freestanding institution with all of the associated costs and politics. UDC is perceived by some people to meet this need. There is a perception that a new slate is needed and that it will be much simpler and direct. The politics in D.C. will continue to complicate and limit resources for higher education.”

The third and most complicated of the options for establishing a community college in D.C., according to the Brookings report, is to weave together UDC and the private colleges in the city that offer associate degrees in some user-friendly manner. McGuire sees some merit in this option and offers Trinity as an example of a private institution that has shown a commitment to educating D.C. residents, both in two- and four-year programs. She noted that Trinity began offering an associate of arts degree three years ago in a program based in the neighborhood of Anacostia, a low-income area not heavily visited by colleges and away from Trinity's main campus, adding that the program has proven quite successful. Currently, McGuire said there are about 50 students in the evening program, most of whom continue on to pursue a four-year degree at the university. This 2+2 program can be a model for the city and UDC to consider, McGuire said.

“I think those folks who have made a commitment to educate D.C. residents would be more than happy to enter a discussion on how, on the private side, we could do this in a way that is cost effective for the city,” McGuire said, encouraging the city to consider incorporating private institutions into the community college discussion. “In the District, there is some anti-private sentiment. If UDC were truly robust, it would represent life-long learning in D.C. from the associate degree all the way to a Ph.D., if they want it.”

Other Movements

D.C. isn’t the only city seriously considering establishing a community college at the moment. Erie, Pa., a city that has seen a slight decrease in population since the 2000 census, is located in a manufacturing-heavy sector of the state without a public, open-access institution. As with the movement in D.C., history plays a role in the push to establish a new community college.

“Northwestern Pennsylvania doesn’t have a community college at all,” said Robert Spaulding, the County of Erie’s director of economic development. “The community college system was established in Pennsylvania back in the 1960s. For whatever reason, it hasn’t had any traction in this area until now.”

Spaulding noted that Erie is ranked 12th in the country in concentration of manufacturing jobs, adding that these jobs consist of about 20 percent of its workforce, twice the national average. The city has seen a loss in the number of manufacturing jobs in recent years, he said, which has since leveled off. Though the area has a number of proprietary institutions, Spaulding said local businesses still have significant numbers of job vacancies. Currently, there are around 1,500 skilled jobs that are unfilled in the area, he said. In addition to current vacancies, he said the area has to prepare for even more vacancies in the near future with an aging workforce. General Electric Transportation, one of the area’s largest employers, informed Spaulding that up to 20 percent of its workforce could retire in the coming years. In the employer-driven economy of Erie, the accessibility of a community college could help the area, he said. Currently, the county is preparing a feasibility study for the state. The local initiative, however, is not without its critics. Some local residents, Spaulding said, don’t understand the necessity of a community college in an area that has a number of four-year and proprietary institutions.

“One of the issues we want to tackle right away is do we have the local support for this and can we possibly endure some sort of tax increase or tax burden to pay for a community college?” Spaulding asked, noting that it could cost up to $10 million a year. “Can we explain the economic advantages? That’s what we see as our biggest challenge. Erie is its own worst enemy. Sometimes we don’t like to do things that are in our best interest.”

One of the city’s consultants for the community college project, David Pierce, former president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said economic development is one of the main driving forces behind the movement in Erie. In contrast to the situation in D.C., he compares the situation to a recent move in Indiana, which converted the state’s two-year technical institutions into full-fledged community colleges. The reason for the change in Indiana, he said, was that the state felt like it was not economically competitive with its neighbors because it could not attract a sizable adult population into higher education.

“As I heard the people in Erie talk about their hopes and dreams, it was eerily similar,” Pierce said.

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