Reuben Jordan is grabbing a snack before class at the cafe on The Community College of Baltimore County’s Essex campus. Jordan is 34 and has been going to college off and on for ten years, but keeps getting derailed. Twice family members have died just before he was to take final exams. But now Jordan is back and has his sights set on being trained in respiratory care.
“I’m just trying to be successful, get my career under way and hopefully on to bigger and better things,” Jordan said.
With more than 60,000 students, CCBC is the largest school of higher learning in the Baltimore region.
CCBC is dealing with declining enrollments at the same time its president wants the school to lead the way toward what a community college should be in the 21st century.
Getting people from classrooms to jobs is what CCBC is all about, but that wasn’t always a community college's mission. Sandra Kurtinitis is CCBC’s president. For 50 years, she’s worked at four community colleges.
Kurtinitis says back in the 60s when she was teaching, her classes were made up mostly of men, a lot of veterans going to college on the G.I. bill. Most were looking to eventually transfer to a four year school.
Now, Kurtinitis said, the community college of the 21st century is about more than being a stepping stone to a four year college.
“I’m big on saying and I never would have said this when I first began as a community college teacher. Everything we do here is work, work, workforce development,” Kurtinitis said.
And what that means is offering training for jobs in high demand. Figuring out where the jobs are, then providing the training.
“We’re the practical cats of higher education,” Kurtinitis said.
About 40 percent of community college students nationwide are in it for job training. Baltimore County Economic Development Director Will Anderson said they need people trained in jobs that are emerging or in high demand.
“If you go and talk to any of our CEOs in our health care industries, they will show you lists of chronic openings,” Anderson said.
Anderson said they direct would-be students to CCBC from the county’s job centers and high schools.
Martha Parham with the American Association of Community Colleges, said this locally focused workforce development is happening across the country, so the schools can remain relevant.
“Just look at manufacturing,” Parham said. “It’s not longer placing widget A next to widget B and moving it down the line. It’s very complex. In some cases it requires computer programming.”
Remaining relevant is important, as community college enrollment declines nationwide.
CCBC has 10,000 fewer students than in 2010. Kurtinitis said that has a lot to do with a good economy meaning more people have jobs.
It can be particularly challenging for community colleges to retain students when most are going part time and often have families to support. Fewer than a quarter of CCBC’s students, about 13,000, met a goal of either transferring, getting an associate’s degree or training certification last year. President Kurtinitis said in any classroom, you could find a doctor’s son and a welfare mother sitting next to each other.
Kurtinitis said, “One would be 18. One might be 42. But that’s who we serve.”
Kurtinitis said CCBC has pioneered a program that lets students who need remedial work do it at the same time they are taking college level classes. She said that is helping with retention.
Last month, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced a program that, if approved by the county council, would make community college free for some recent Baltimore County high school graduates who qualify.
President Kurtinitis said on the day the tuition-free program was announced, they fielded more than 200 phone calls asking about it.