Better Late Than Never

Washington, D.C., finally gets a community college of its own, after years of financial and political wrangling.
September 25, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The first community college in the District of Columbia officially opened its doors Thursday, ridding the nation’s capital of the undesirable distinction of being the largest city in the country without a two-year institution.

The Community College of the District of Columbia is being incubated within the University of the District of Columbia, the city’s land-grant and only public institution, and has taken over its existing associate degree, certificate and work force development programs. For the time being, it is also located on the same campus as UDC and will consist only of these existing programs. In the next year or so, however, the community college will distinguish itself from UDC further when it moves into a new facility across town and adds a variety of new academic programs.

Pressure for the city to establish a community college came to a head during the summer of 2008, after the Brookings Institution released a report identifying the need for more postsecondary educational opportunities in the city. Researchers found that nearly a third of the city’s jobs required some education beyond high school, preferably an associate degree, but also noted that many of the city’s residents do not meet this educational threshold. It further noted that UDC “struggles with the dual missions of a community college and a state university, straining its resources and hampering its effectiveness.” The only solution, the researchers suggested, was for the city to create “a freestanding community college from an incubator institution.”

Now, more than a year after the idea was first floated, city residents celebrated the community college’s opening at its inaugural convocation Thursday morning. Among the officials to speak at the event, excitement about the institution’s potential influence on the city was palpable.

“One of the most depressing statistics for me is that two-thirds of the jobs in the District of Columbia are filled by people who do not live in this city,” said Vincent C. Gray, chair of the Council of the District of Columbia. “Yet, the strange thing is, we’ve had a growth of those jobs, especially in education and health care, in the past 10 years. The answer is obvious, ladies and gentlemen. That is, we have a mismatch between the jobs available and that are being created and the skills of the people of the District of Columbia. A community college will help close that gap.”

For Gray, however, the potential benefits of having a community college in the city extend far beyond that of simply retraining District residents for the jobs of the future. He also believes that this two-year institution can raise the status and reputation of its incubator, UDC, leading donors to give back to the historically financially strapped institution.

“I still can’t wait for the day when we don’t have to talk about building 38, building 35 and building 45,” said Gray, quipping about the mundane and nameless buildings on UDC’s campus. “We sound like a correctional institution. I can’t wait for the day when we have names on these buildings for people who have made important contributions to this university and the District of Columbia.”

For the community college’s leaders, the long-term goals are no less grand. Jonathan Gueverra, new chief executive officer of the community college and former provost of a nearby campus of Northern Virginia Community College, challenged the students, faculty and staff attending the convocation to make this new institution “the envy of the nation.”

In the meantime, Gueverra and his colleagues will have to strive to make the District’s first community college the envy of the immediate metropolitan area. Just a few miles outside of the city are a number of sizable and well-respected two-year institutions, including Northern Virginia Community College, Montgomery College and Prince George’s Community College, which have served many Washington residents in years past. Gueverra, however, believes that these nearby suburban institutions should be partners in his college’s growth, not competitors.

Gueverra acknowledged that these other community colleges benefit from the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program, which "funds the financial difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at participating public colleges" for District residents. Still, he said that, even though these colleges benefit from the out-of-state tuition dollars this program brings them, it would be "cynical" to think they they would not want to collaborate in the future because of this. Gueverra said it was in their interest, from "an economic standpoint for the region," to work together.

Photo: David Moltz

Jonathan Gueverra, the community college's CEO.

Many of the students at the convocation, some of whom could be seen studying flash cards and reading homework assignments in the audience before the formal processional, expressed enthusiasm about being part of the community college’s first class of students.

Tony Carr, a 26 year-old nursing student and a newcomer to the District, said he felt like he was now part of the city’s “history,” being in the college’s first class, and was following in the footsteps of his grandmother, an early graduate of UDC’s law school.

Avis Warley, an empty-nest mother also studying to become a nurse, called the opening of the community college “a new beginning” for the city. She said the college would provide a welcome opening for District residents who are intimidated by the prospect of starting a four-year degree program.

“I think, at this point, my chances of finishing my nursing certification would have been slim if I had to attend an institution outside of the District,” Warley said after the event. “They opened the door here, and I just stepped in."

Community college faculty members at the convocation, most of whom have already been teaching these existing programs at UDC for a number of years, expressed few reservations about working for the new institution. Brenda Brown, a mathematics professor, said her only major concern was how the institution would move forward and differentiate itself from UDC.

Photo: David Moltz

Community college faculty members at convocation.

Jacqueline S. Jackson, interim dean of academic affairs, said that the bulk of such worries were simply a factor of the institution’s newness and that they would be remedied once the institution moved to a separate and distinct campus.

“It’s not unusual for there to be some gray areas because, right now, you have two institutions existing within the same space,” Jackson said after the event. “There are faculty members who have taught courses that have led to a bachelor’s degree and who have taught courses that have led to a certificate and an associate degree. So, I think what some people may be experiencing is just a natural outcome of the process. We haven’t done this before. My sense and confidence is that when we have our own location, we will become, to the physical eye, two separate institutions.”

Though plans for another campus specifically for the community college are on the horizon, the focus of Thursday’s convocation was on the opportunity the institution will provide to District residents, regardless of its location.

“Live like there is a tomorrow out there for you to seize it,” Gueverra said at the end of his convocation address. “And today, every day, have a sense of meaning and purpose, because each day, each new day, presents a fresh new set of opportunities. Nothing is impossible to do unless you’ve already decided that you’re not going to do it. Liberate yourself of the belief that world only has the haves and have-nots. I dare to say to you that this world doesn’t have those who have and many more among us who do not know what we have. Find your hidden talents. But, finally, when anyone asks you what does Community College of the District of Columbia mean for you, you should say, opportunity.”


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