In her inspiring speech Tuesday, May 22 at Howard Community College's graduation, Danielle Allison began by noting that she had never even attended a commencement speech before, much less given one. "As a first-generation college student," she told her fellow graduates, "attending a graduation is a new experience for me."
And that is the beauty of community colleges such as Howard. They tend to serve people who were not expected to go to college at all — men and women, as Allison pointed out in her speech, who are "first-generation students, non-traditional students and the disadvantaged finding their way, underdogs who some counted out, and overlooked."
Allison herself fit that mold: A 41-year-old former Air Force mechanic, she was raised by a single mother who had dropped out of high school, and grew up on government assistance. Though she had higher ambitions and attended an art institute out of high school, she dropped out a few months later, then bounced around from job to job before joining the Air Force and eventually finding HCC. She now plans to pursue a master's degree in international affairs.
These days, of course, Howard and other community colleges serve another population as well: students who realize the value of higher education but who cannot afford the ever-spiraling cost of four-year schools, where single semesters can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
HCC's graduating class this year was 1,076 — the largest in the school's 41-year history. That growth attests to its importance.
But the college faces challenges in dealing with that growth, mostly financial challenges. The school, which is opening a new health sciences building early next year, is planning a $5 per credit tuition increase this fall, which would raise tuition to $124 per credit for in-county residents. That will make HCC a bit less of a bargain for its often financially strapped students.
The higher tuition is the result of financial belt-tightening that trickles down from the state to the county to the community college. The proposed county budget for next fiscal year includes $1.2 million less in funding than what the college had requested, a shortfall that precipitated the tuition hike.
The shortfall also precipitated a discussion on the County Council about how to ensure HCC gets the support it needs as it continues to grow.
"Of all (departmental) budgets, I am most concerned about yours," council member Courtney Watson said at a meeting earlier this month.
"I don't think we can continue to sustain this level of insufficient funding," said council member Calvin Ball, suggesting that the council, County Executive Ken Ulman and HCC leaders need to come up with a long-term funding strategy.
Indeed they do.
The solution will not be simple, involving as it will balancing the competing demands of limited government resources and limited financial capabilities of students, and we have no easy answer. But as people like Danielle Allison can attest, HCC is worth whatever effort it takes to allow the school to continue to provide an affordable education option for men and women who have few such options.