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Business Officer Magazine

Insights: A Conversation With Lynn Coleman

By Karla Hignite

“We’re continually playing catch up,” says Coleman. As NACUBO’s Community Colleges Council chair, she knows all about the budgetary pressures of two-year institutions. In her interview with Business Officer,  Coleman discusses the specific implications for her campus of two across-the-board challenges: facilities funding and evolving student demographics.

How did your college fall so far behind in facility space?
We went 10 years without constructing a new building on campus, and as enrollments grew, we were quickly becoming a “trailer city.” With the arrival of our new president in 1998, we designed a new master plan that has resulted in a construction boom on campus. In 2003, we opened an instructional lab building. Next August we expect to open a visual and performing arts center followed by a student services facility in January 2007.

How are you paying for all this?
Maryland’s community colleges have $46.7 million in state capital funding to share among us. A typical four-year institution may get that for one building. That seems off balance, especially when you consider that our two-year schools collectively enroll about 54 percent of the state’s undergraduate population.

The state department of budget and management recognized our square-footage deficit and helped get our request for buildings on the list. On our own, we launched a $12 million capital campaign to raise funds for our visual and performing arts center. Our campus is 35 years old, so even as we embark on these new building projects, we have to factor in maintenance to aging structures and the requirements that these new buildings will present.

Is the swell in your enrollment the reason you’re considering the addition of a student residence?
It’s based largely on student demographics. Residential living hasn’t been an area of involvement for the vast majority of community colleges, other than those in remote locations. But more are now considering it, especially those with younger students. In particular, this is an emerging issue being driven by a younger population seeking a traditional college experience.

Is that true in your case?
Definitely. In Howard County, high school enrollment is growing rapidly. Because we get about 25 percent of the county’s high school graduates, the average age of our students is steadily going down—from 27 to 22 during the past 10 years. And more of those students are entering as full-time credit students. When you combine those two characteristics—younger and full-time—you get a different kind of student than is typical, historically, for a community college. That presents new challenges and opportunities.

Such as?
Younger students expect more in the way of athletic activities and services. And since full-time students spend significantly more time on a campus, you need full-time services such as dining venues and extended library hours.

What stage are you at with adding a residential component?
We surveyed students extensively and identified strong interest and a need to proceed, so we’ve hired a consultant to help us obtain a developer. We’re looking at a 300-bed facility to start with, but adding a residential component will change the whole nature of our campus. Once we go down that road, we will essentially become a 24-hour operation.

How would this redefine the community aspect of HCC?
It certainly adds to the possibility for increasing retention and for building on the concept of learning communities. But I also think it is an extension of what a community college experience has come to represent for more students. While many graduates who continue at a four-year institution consider the four-year school their alma mater, more often what we are hearing from our graduates is that their time here was what helped them feel most connected.

What is your next biggest challenge?
An ongoing concern has been how to balance needs for infrastructure, technology upgrades, and support of our allied health programs without overtaxing students. We constantly monitor our tuition to keep it as low as possible. Because our state and county don’t factor in our rapid growth when awarding funding, the primary burden for our new construction will fall on students in the form of tuition.

We’ve become much more aggressive in raising scholarship money. Ten years ago, you would not have seen so many community college presidents immersed in the role of fundraising. Today most are spending significant time building relationships with donors.

Author Bio Karla Hignite, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer.