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It Took a While, But HEAT's Rising

It's going to be 10 degrees hotter than usual in Harford County this year, because of the HEAT.

That's one of the catchier slogans to announce the long-awaited opening of the Higher Education and Applied Technology (HEAT) Center later this month.

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Ten new degree programs will be offered by six Maryland institutions of higher learning at the new brick and stone building Aberdeen, coordinated by Harford Community College.

The HEAT effort represents Harford County's unique approach to extending the local opportunities in higher education (beyond the two-year programs of HCC) and meshing them with business-technology needs.

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Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a former community college professor himself, pronounced the Harford center a model for his plan of regional career technology centers in Maryland.

Classes begin next month in the newly completed academic building, while the first industrial-flex building is under construction for leasing to business tenants next year. The 150-acre site, west of the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 22, was donated by the Maryland Transportation Authority. The $1.5 million cost of the 10,800-square-foot, V-shaped academic building was shared by the county and state.

It's a significant step for Harford, which is the only Baltimore metro county (aside from Howard) that lacks a four-year college. The persistent efforts of those working toward this goal over the past decade have been finally rewarded.

At the same time, it must be recognized that this is not the first step in building a traditional full-fledged four-year college campus in Harford. It is a different approach. And it's not as if opportunities for university education did not already exist within county boundaries.

Three colleges already offer degree programs at Aberdeen Proving Ground: University of Maryland, Central Michigan University and Florida Institute of Technology. And the College of Notre Dame has been teaching degree courses in elementary education, business and nursing at HCC since 1992.

(It should also be noted that Eastern Christian College in Creswell folded this year, to merge with a college in Illinois. Higher ed is not an automatic growth industry.)

The HEAT Center is much more modest than originally planned, to fit the budget and the initial needs. Over-ambition was as much as anything the reason for years of delay in starting construction, despite excuses about the depressed economy. Plus a lack of urgent demand for the high-tech campus from businesses, even as national and regional firms continued to locate in Harford and collected government grants for their specific job-training programs.

The satellite dish tower that stands in front of the octagonal entrance to the HEAT Center is as much a symbol of competitive limitations as it is of growth. Because televised classes from around the state or nation can be beamed to a dish and monitors anywhere, not just to the Aberdeen center. Rapidly developing interactive communications equipment enhances that capability.

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Look at what administrators of Cecil Community College (an official partner feeder school in HEAT) are saying. Cecil officials are already voicing the hope that their students would not have to drive to Aberdeen for courses but could pick them up via television at the North East campus of CCC.

With that type of telecommunications, however, Cecil County students wouldn't be limited to the courses taught at HEAT. Certainly live teaching classes like those at HEAT will be needed, but that need will be limited.

This does not diminish the promise of the HEAT Center in its current form. The meshing of four-year degree tracks with community college programs, the convenience of location for Harford residents, the affordable tuition and the broader selection of career courses should prove attractive.

The degree programs offered at the HEAT Center appear to be carefully selected to meet demand: education, nursing, business, criminal justice, engineering. There are master's degree offerings in nursing, education and in business administration, as well as the bachelor's degree choices.

According to HCC, classes are filling up and more colleges are looking to participate in the HEAT experience. But the proof will be in the sustained interest of schools and of students in their degree programs over the next few years.

Given the record of HCC in serving local educational needs, we suspect that HEAT will be a success. Its academic success may be demonstrated in stimulating students to explore other educational paths, other courses that are not available through the Aberdeen campus.

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In other words, mushrooming on-site enrollment may not be the mark of judging its impact in advancing higher education in this county.

It's been nine years since the idea for the center was proposed, six years since a county task force was formed. Only in the last year did it reach reality, with state money allocated and the project put on a fast track, combining architect and construction proposals to speed the process.

Plenty of skeptics saw it as more of a government-financed industrial park than as a higher education center, as a vision without economic foundation. With both those objectives in clear sight, we can safely say that this summer the HEAT is rising.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.


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