Bruce Reid arrived as a professor when Howard County Community College opened 25 years ago, and he immediately faced a decision: rent a graduation gown or spend even more to buy one.
"I bought one -- and it was the best investment I ever made," said Mr. Reid, still a professor at HCC, which tomorrow marks its 25th anniversary. "After my first year, I knew I was going to retire here. It was so rewarding and energizing."
In the past quarter-century he, along with four other professors who have taught there from the beginning, watched the community college grow from a single building and 600 students to a 120-acre campus with an enrollment of 5,000.
They say the college has come a long way from its beginnings on a farm field with a barn and a silo at a time when some students condescendingly referred to it as "a high school with ashtrays."
Since then, the college has expanded to six buildings, a theater and two satellite locations, including the year-old Business and Technology Training Center aimed at local businesses and government agencies.
Its original professors say their classes now include a higher proportion of recent high school graduates than when they first started teaching there, in classes dominated by homemakers and other older students.
And they emphasize the college's integral role in the county's jTC business, cultural and civic life and its longevity compared with several other short-lived higher education institutions in Columbia, such as Antioch College and Dag Hammarskjold College.
"We're really the major show in town," said Larry Madaras, a history professor. "We've gone beyond the parameter of 120 credits and tried to look into the future to see what people need. We're a multifaceted institution."
Howard Community College's president, Dwight A. Burrill, said the college is seeking to adapt to technology that is changing education, including interactive video, Internet connections and computer labs.
The college aims to appeal to different age groups and interests. Its offerings include:
* The James W. Rouse Scholars Program, which provides about 25 graduating high school seniors with admission to an honors curriculum and, in many cases, scholarship money.
* Summer academic programs for grade school students.
* Noncredit continuing education courses that drew more than 15,000 enrollments last year.
* The Smith Theatre, which offers a venue for the performing arts and community events, such as a gun control forum last summer.
The college also boasts the state's only community college career-track programs in biomedical engineering technology -- training students to maintain medical equipment -- and in cardiovascular technology.
And, recently, it has placed more emphasis on its relationship with county businesses. Its Business and Technology Training Center in the Gateway office complex off Route 175 offers training for employees in computer systems, management and other areas.
This year, Allied Signal Technical Services Corp., a federal contractor with offices in Columbia, sent more than 900 employees through 24 courses at HCC's training center.
Despite the new emphasis on business and technology, longtime professors say the college -- with an average classroom size of 21 students -- will not grow impersonal.
"The humanistic part of teaching will always be here," said chemistry professor Daniel Friedman, one of the college's original five professors. "We believe we do it better than four-year schools. We pay more attention to students and do a better job of teaching because all we do is teach."