Fixing BCCC

At a time when increasing numbers of Baltimore City high school graduates are choosing to attend community colleges instead of traditional four-year institutions, Gov. Martin O'Malley was right to try to shake up the leadership of the faltering Baltimore City Community College. BCCC desperately needs an infusion of new ideas and leadership if it is to fulfill its mission of preparing students for the academic rigors of a traditional college or university, or of giving them the skills they need to succeed in the work world. The governor's nomination of five new members to BCCC's nine-member board of trustees is a shot in the arm to efforts by faculty and administrators to get the school back on track

Across the country, community colleges have seen a rapid growth in enrollment, often as a result of the financial pressure families are experiencing in this recession. Because they are less expensive than their four-year counterparts, community colleges are an attractive alternative for many students who are either unable to afford tuition at a four-year institution or can't meet the entrance requirements because they need remedial courses to bring their skills up to par.

Community colleges like BCCC can help bridge that gap, but only if their students actually receive the promised benefits. Unfortunately, recent studies have suggested that students at two-year colleges generally are less likely to earn degrees or professional certification than their peers in four-year schools and thus are less likely to be able to take advantage of the opportunities those credentials confer. Because community colleges serve a much more varied student population in terms of age and interests, their graduation rates can't be directly compared with those of traditional four-year schools. Moreover, Baltimore City students are more likely to come from poor families and be less well prepared academically that their suburban counterparts.

But even taking those differences into account, it's clear that BCCC needs to make substantial improvements.

According to the Maryland Commission on Higher Education, fewer than 3 percent of BCCC students graduate with an associate's degree or a certificate qualifying them for a professional career. When the number of students who take enough courses to gain admission to a traditional 4-year institution is added in — a fairer measure of how successful community colleges are in fulfilling their mission — that figure rises to just over 20 percent. But even that is still only about half the success rate of most of Maryland's other public community colleges. At Anne Arundel County Community College, for example, the combined graduation and transfer rate is 42.5 percent; Howard, Frederick and Montgomery counties' community colleges have similar success rates.

Compounding BCCC's problems is the fact that school was recently put on probation by the Middle Atlantic States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits colleges and universities in our region. The commission cited serious concerns about the school's inadequate record-keeping of student academic progress and the lack of a clear plan for using such data to improve learning outcomes. While the school retains its official accreditation, it must submit an acceptable blueprint for fixing these deficiencies by March or face possible further disciplinary action by the accreditation body.

Meanwhile, faculty morale at the school has dropped to abysmally low levels, a state of affairs that appears to be due in part to the toxic relationship that has developed between the college's instructors and the administration. Last November, the faculty senate held a vote of no confidence in school President Carolane G. Williams, who has headed BCCC since 2006. It's hard to imagine the school's students were well served by the enmity revealed during that clash, although the situation appears to have improved somewhat since then.

One of the first tasks the school's new board members are expected to undertake is a thorough audit of the school's programs, instructional strategies, graduation statistics and faculty-administration relations. That should give them the kind of big-picture view they will need to formulate long-term plans for the future and suggest short-term fixes for the school's immediate problems. BCCC has an important role to play in helping Baltimore City youngsters achieve their academic and career goals, but it can only do that if it first establishes a solid instructional and administrative foundation to build on.

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