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Mission creep is a term that became part of the American national dialogue after it entered the language in the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down tragedy in Somalia two decades ago.

It generally describes military situations where an extended stay by troops sent to a danger zone for a single purpose ends up resulting in an expanded role for those troops.

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Far from being a term that applies only to military situations, mission creep can be used to describe any number of well-intentioned but ill-conceived situations wherein people in an organization doing one job recognize a problem that could be resolved by making a few modifications to the definition of the assigned task.

Higher education is a case in point. Over the past 30 or more years, many a college has managed to transform itself into a university and many a two-year college has made the jump to offering four-year programs. On one level, it's a natural progression that allows for an increase in offerings to client students.

On another very important level, however, the result can be the dilution of important niche educational functions. Historically the distinction between a college and a university has been that colleges focus on a single area of studies while a university consists of several colleges, each offering a specialty, under a single management structure.

A small college with a finely focused business program may be able to become a university by expanding its offerings to include majors in sciences and math. To what degree the overall state of education is improved – or diluted – is difficult to gauge.

Similarly, there has been a movement among some community colleges — traditionally two-year institutions sometimes referred to as junior colleges – to expand their offerings to include four-year degree programs.

The subject has been broached at Harford Community College, but the school has wisely avoided the addition of four-year degree programs. Rather, the focus has remained on the historic mission of the junior college movement: providing an easily-affordable venue into the realm of post-high school education. In addition, Harford Community College, like many community colleges, has a strong two-year program for people looking to enter the field of nursing.

Instead of engaging in mission creep, HCC has devised a partnership with a four-year school – Towson University – which is constructing a classroom building on HCC's campus and will independently offer and administer what are essentially third and fourth year college classes that aren't available at HCC.

While providing students with a low-cost baseline college education that is portable to four-year institutions does not have the cache of being a venue for cutting edge research into physics or medicine, it is every bit as important in the grand scheme of things. A college degree is required for most jobs that offer salaries and benefits in line with being in the American middle class. Meanwhile, changes in the tuition structure of four-year colleges and universities are increasingly pricing a four-year degree out of the range of middle class high school graduates.

In this shift, community colleges have been bright spots, keeping open the door of higher education for a broad swath of the community. By partnering with Towson University, HCC has found a way to address the issue of local access to four-year degree programs, without diluting the community college's focus on its core mission.

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