Baltimore's community college under pressure to fix longstanding problems

When students walk onto the Baltimore City Community College campus for the first day of classes Monday, they will find an institution under fierce pressure to change.

Enrollment has plunged over the past several years. The school’s graduation rate is the lowest of any community college in Maryland. Thousands of city residents have rejected BCCC, and are paying more money to attend Baltimore County’s community college instead.

Those students are “voting with their feet because they believe the coursework and the opportunities … aren’t at BCCC,” said state Del. Maggie McIntosh, an influential Baltimore Democrat.

Alarmed, McIntosh helped push legislation through the General Assembly this year directing BCCC to address its longstanding problems or face loss of funding. To jump-start reforms, the measure dismantled the college’s board of trustees and specified qualifications for new members.

Kurt Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor and current president of the University of Baltimore, was tapped to help lead the transformation as head of the reconfigured board. He will monitor the college’s progress as it works to meet a December 2018 deadline to achieve specific goals set by the legislature and turn the school around.

“It is fair to say we will focus like a laser beam on the task,” Schmoke said.

As BCCC takes steps to address the problems, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has provided an extra incentive for the college to improve.

This month she announced a plan to cover tuition at BCCC for all city public high school graduates starting with the Class of 2018. The proposal, part of Pugh’s larger crime-fighting plan, has the potential to bring hundreds of new students to the college’s main campus on Liberty Heights Avenue in West Baltimore.

“We have to be at our best,” said Gordon F. May, the school’s president and CEO.

That means bolstering partnerships with local businesses and raising graduation and transfer rates among a largely low-income student population. BCCC administrators also believe they need to change public perceptions of the college and more widely publicize its successes.

May said the legislature’s actions were a wake-up call that the college had to “do more and do better.” He says he’s confident it will.

Schmoke also believes the college will succeed.

“There are many people who have heard or remember some of the horror stories of the last 20 years,” Schmoke said. “That’s not the BCCC of 2017.”

The college can point to some bright spots. The licensing examination pass rates for BCCC graduates in some fields are high: 100 percent of the most recent year’s graduates who took licensing exams in physical therapy, dental hygiene, respiratory care and practical nursing passed, according to school officials.

A recent survey suggests employers are generally satisfied with the work of BCCC graduates; 90 percent of respondents who employ BCCC grads said they would hire another, according to a 2016 report by the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

But the Schaefer Center report also cited signs that BCCC has failed potential students: 8,000 city residents bypassed BCCC and currently pay more to go to the Community College of Baltimore County. Tuition this fall for Baltimore residents to attend the city’s community college is $1,573. City residents must pay nearly twice that — $3,012 — for a semester at Baltimore County’s college.

In fall 2010, opening undergraduate enrollment at BCCC was just over 7,100 students. But after the Middle States Commission on Higher Education warned the college could lose its accreditation, enrollment fell to 4,060 by 2015.

While enrollment was dropping precipitously, the state was pouring $40 million a year into BCCC and not getting results, McIntosh said.

She and other city legislators discussed putting the community college under the University System of Maryland, but backed away from the idea as too controversial.

While Maryland’s other community colleges are funded and operated by their county governments, the state has for years run and funded BCCC, just as it runs the city’s jail and zoo. Schmoke says over the long term, officials must decide the best governing structure.

Cortez Waller, 18, an incoming freshman at the college, considered attending the Community College of Baltimore County but couldn’t afford the steeper price.

The recent graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School said he remembers BCCC representatives coming there to recruit students, talking up the robotics program and other academic offerings as high quality, affordable and in demand by employers. BCCC is the only two-year school in Maryland to offer an associate’s degree in robotics technology, May said.

Waller, who will major in electrical engineering, thinks BCCC is sometimes judged unfairly. Some people he knows “look down on BCCC just because of the simple fact that it’s in the city,” he said.

“What I’ve come to learn is that anywhere you go, there’s an opportunity to excel,” Waller said while on campus last week to register for classes. “BCCC can put you at schools like Morgan State, or a school like MIT, if you work hard enough.”

May said BCCC should increase its presence in city high schools to convince more students like Waller to attend. Growing ties between the college and the city school system could help make that happen. City schools CEO Sonja Santelises is a member of the new board of trustees. Michael Thomas, the school system’s director of career and technology education, will become BCCC’s new vice president for workforce development and continuing education in September.

Last year, only 250 recent Baltimore high school graduates attended BCCC. Pugh’s plan has the potential to increase that number to 1,000, BCCC officials say.

The mayor is expected to include money in next year’s budget to pay for the program. The spending would require City Council approval. Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and other members have praised the idea.

Pugh says covering BCCC tuition for city high school graduates would cost about $1.5 million in the first year. Because much of those students’ tuition would be covered by federal grants, the city would generally need to pay only a few hundred dollars per student, analysts have said. About 60 percent of BCCC students received federal Pell grants in 2014, according to state data.

If city students take up an offer to attend BCCC, past data indicate that many may struggle to earn a degree.

About 93 percent of BCCC students come to the college in need of remedial courses they must take before they can enroll in college-level courses and earn credits toward a degree. This process often lengthens their time in college. Additionally, the majority of students enroll part time as they balance family and job responsibilities. The average age of a BCCC student is about 30.

Four years after the class of 2011 enrolled, just 3.3 percent of first-time, full-time students had graduated with an associate’s degree or certificate — the lowest percentage among Maryland’s 16 community colleges, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. An additional 11.5 percent had transferred to a four-year institution, the second lowest percentage in the state. Another 9 percent were still enrolled at BCCC or had transferred to another Maryland community college.

BCCC recently joined a network of more than 220 community colleges from around the nation, called Achieving the Dream, and will work with two “coaches” to improve student outcomes through data analysis and leadership training.

“We’ll find where students are being lost …and what we can do to prevent the loss,” said Karen Stout, president and CEO of the college network.

BCCC has also begun offering cost-free-textbook classes via the Open Educational Resources program, which allows students to use online texts. Eliminating the often prohibitive cost of books will make it easier for students to succeed in more courses, officials say.

The General Assembly’s realignment of the board of trustees led to a membership of more people with backgrounds in procurement and finance, workforce development, and business, including a high-level executive from a large Baltimore city employer — Plank Industries CEO Tom Geddes.

Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development and a board member, said BCCC’s new leadership is focused on getting residents trained for emerging jobs.

“On the workforce side, we’re doing everything we can to help the college realign its priorities and stay connected to employers,” he said.

The college also has developed a “business incubator” on campus, which will host small businesses and provide support for them to grow their companies. The businesses will in turn give first consideration to BCCC students and graduates for internships and jobs.

Amid the various new strategies, Schmoke is optimistic about BCCC’s future.

“For any institution, it’s easy to lose your reputation,” Schmoke said. “It’s harder to regain it….

“They already know on campus that a lot of standards of success have been met,” he said. “But the broader community needs to know that.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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