When Dennis Seymour graduated high school in the 1960s, he said he was “not on a good track.”
“I just didn’t have the grades,” he said. “I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the motivation to go to college any place else.”
So when Seymour's mother offered to send him to what was then Catonsville Community College, he took her up on the deal. In 1963 Seymour joined the first class of full-time students on the campus of what is now the Community College of Baltimore County.
“It really did save my life,” Seymour said. “It gave me some direction, gave me some time to mature a little bit.” He graduated with an associate’s degree in 1970.
Today, 47 years and four degrees later, Seymour is a dean at CCBC, which is marking its 60th anniversary with a number of events and activities, including last weekend’s alumni reunion and “State of the College” breakfast.
In the glow of the anniversary celebration, the college is looking to the next generation of programs and also facing pressures to maintain quality programs amid declining enrollment and tighter finances.
“Over the past decade or so, what we’ve been able to do is really build on the concept of ‘the power of one,’” said Sandra Kurtinitis, the president of the 63,000 student school. “We are one huge dynamic institution built on the strength of three.”
The community college, which offers more than 200 degree and certificate programs, began as three colleges — in Catonsville, Dundalk and Essex. The first classes in Catonsville and Essex, in 1957, were held in elementary and high schools.
The three schools were merged in 1998 to become CCBC. Kurtinitis took the reins in 2006.
“We all act as one now,” said CCBC spokeswoman Hope Davis. She said that Kurtinitis has focused on removing duplication and making new workforce training programs available on each campus.
The Catonsville campus, for instance, offers an aviation program to meet growing needs for air traffic controllers and pilots.
Adapting to changes in technology and workforce needs is exactly what CCBC is built for, Kurtinitis said.
“We pay very close attention to what the industry needs are,” Kurtinitis said, naming cybersecurity and nursing as growing industries with changing needs that CCBC is trying to meet.
The college has boosted its maritime logistics program to help meet an anticipated labor shortage at the Port of Baltimore due to increased shipping volume and an aging workforce. For its Chemical Dependency Counseling certificate, a focus on opioid counseling has been added, college officials said.
“I think the community colleges by design are very responsive to the needs of their local community,” said Martha Parham, a spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges. “They work not only with students in the local area, but they work with local businesses to determine what are the gaps that they need filled in terms of their workforce."
“We have to move quickly to keep up with the world around us,” Davis said. “We try to keep strong community connections, keep our ears to the ground, and to predict and project what’s coming next."
“CCBC is the monster of workforce training providers,” said Will Anderson, head of the county’s Workforce and Economic Development department, which he said relies on the school as its primary training partner. “If you look all the way back historically, CCBC has been a key player in getting people ready for work for decades.”
Anderson said as CCBC trains people in growing industries like healthcare, they are also diving into emerging industries like nanotechnology and additive manufacturing. He said a program that trains students in digital fabrication — designing things for computer-assisted manufacturing — is graduating students that “companies in the county can’t hire enough of."
Kabish Shah, an assistant project manager with Baltimore-based construction company Whiting Turner, who graduated from CCBC in 2012 before completing a four-year degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said CCBC’s technical training programs will prove valuable in the coming years.
“Everybody wants an office job,” he said. “But there are people who need to work in things like [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] or fixing elevators. In 10 to 15 years, people will retire, and we will need young people with technical skills.”
One of CCBC’s goals, Kurtinitis said, is not only to provide businesses with a workforce, but to help lift people into the middle class.
The school, she said, has an “open door mission” — anyone who has a high school diploma or GED, she said, has automatic admission. Costs, too, are lower than at a four-year college, she said, making education accessible to people with lower income.
Open acceptance “provides an access point for people that maybe normally wouldn’t go to school or don’t come from a college-going culture,” said Parham, of the American Association of Community Colleges. “We like to say we’re the on-ramp to the middle class.”
She said community colleges like CCBC serve disproportionate numbers of underrepresented communities, such as minorities and first-generation college students.
According to the school’s fact book, 56 percent of CCBC students taking classes for credit were nonwhite in 2015. Nearly a third were first generation college students. Around 65 percent needed to take some form of remedial course to be prepared for college-level coursework.
CCBC also serves a large number of nontraditional students, who return to school as adults or who work while attending school part time. Seventy-one percent of CCBC students were enrolled part-time in 2015, up 4 percent from 2012. More than half of students worked more than 20 hours a week.
Sumra Khan, a business administration student in her fifth semester, said during her time at the school she met “the most hardworking people — people who have jobs, families, who have whole other lives going on.
“It was that CCBC meets you where you’re at,” Khan said. “They could go to college without quitting their entire lives."
Full-time annual tuition and fees at CCBC is $3,586 for county residents. By contrast, in-state tuition at UMBC, down the road from CCBC’s Catonsville campus, is $11,518. Some students save money by attending CCBC for two years, then transferring to a more expensive four-year college.
Seymour, the CCBC dean, said the school is considering talking to the county executive about mirroring Baltimore City’s proposed “College Promise,” which would guarantee free community college tuition for public high school graduates in Baltimore County.
In the meantime, however, maintaining CCBC’s low tuition rates and status as the “best bargain in town" will be a challenge, Seymour said.
“We always have the struggle for finances,” he said. State and federal funds and tuition are the major funding sources.
“So unfortunately when the state and county hold us flat and our expenses go up every year just by virtue of inflation, we have to struggle to get that balance,” he said. “And it’s on the backs of students paying tuition.”
The community college and its 2016 $168 million budget are second in size only to Montgomery College, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
But enrollment has declined in recent years, Kurtinitis said, making retaining students one of the school’s key goals.
Seymour said that enrollment at CCBC dropped after the recession ended because fewer people were seeking job-related education. The decline has followed a broader national trend, according to a 2016 report by the College Board and the Urban Institute — community colleges across the country saw rapid enrollment increases until around 2010, when they began to fall.
Davis, the school’s spokeswoman, said key ways they will try to stabilize enrollment include offering courses students want and shoring up student support services to keep struggling students in school.
The support services the school is expanding, Seymour said, are the same ones that pulled him toward success in the 1960s.
“I finally got a little taste of education,” Seymour said of his days at Catonsville Community College. “I got motivated, I got much farther in my life than I ever anticipated. Education is the answer to everything."