In August, Ann Ivester, chairwoman of the board of the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, decided she'd like to take an art or music appreciation course at the college. A recent retiree, she was eager to learn about things she didn't have time for as a businesswoman.
She tried to get into one art class that combined lessons with museum visits, but all three sections were full. Then she tried to sign up for a music appreciation class, but those sections were full, too. That's when she realized the college is facing a serious problem: It's crowded, and getting more so, and unless something is done soon, the college will keep having to turn away potential students.
"Both on the credit and noncredit side, we have growth," said Mary Ellen Duncan, the college president. "And we're beginning to see that we're not ready for it."
There are 5,252 students, up 2.7 percent over last year, and many more are expected. HCC officials are scrambling to accommodate the growth, but they acknowledge that they are far behind. Until they catch up, they worry the college cannot fulfill its mission of open access to everybody -- not to mention that it's never a good business practice to turn away customers.
The crowding manifests itself in many ways: long lines at the bookstore at the start of the school year, not enough free computers at certain hours of the day, an increasing number of test-takers in the cafeteria, classes at 7 a.m. because that's the only way to fit everybody in.
Margaret Garroway, who coordinates the college's Learning Assistance Center, said students and tutors who use the center have become acutely aware of the crowding in recent years.
"They squeeze in wherever they can," she said. "At times, it gets too crowded and noisy in here with tutoring going on. It's hard when you have groups of people so close together. And we only have a small computer lab in here, so there aren't always enough computers."
The center sometimes gets so full, she said, that students and their tutors have to sit in the library -- even though it creates noise in what is supposed to be a quiet space.
"That does cause problems," she said, adding that the empty classrooms she used to use as a backup are now "all booked all the time."
Although the college has been growing for years, Duncan, who has been president for a little more than a year, said few higher-ups realized the magnitude of the problem until recently.
"Last year, my new year here, I didn't realize the amount of people that we weren't serving," she said. "Only by students or other people in the community saying, 'We couldn't get into this class,' did we begin to realize this is a bigger problem than we realized."
College officials attribute the increased enrollment not only to the county's growth, but to a strong economy and an aggressive marketing campaign that promotes HCC's ability to provide a quality education at a low cost.
Over the past five years, the proportion of Howard County high school seniors who go to HCC has increased from 15 to 20 percent; if that trend continues, the number of students enrolling at the college will continue to grow rapidly. HCC officials know the population of high school seniors is exploding, with a 17 percent increase forecast in the next two years.
More businesses and more housing developments also bring more students to HCC, Duncan said, and the college has also gradually increased enrollment in other markets, such as noncredit courses in business and industry.
This semester, the college started offering 26 new sections, mostly math and English classes, to accommodate demand.
A new 65,000-square-foot instructional building is in the works, and it should help alleviate the problem, but it won't be completed for three years. The college is working on a master facilities plan to create a growth blueprint for the next 10 years, but that won't solve current problems. In the meantime, the college is doing whatever it can.
"Plan B is that we beg, borrow, steal, whatever," Duncan said.
Recently, she said, she and some other college officials went on a tour of the county to find office space the college could use for classrooms. But they didn't find a lot of extra space, she said.
"A lot of space that's available doesn't have parking," she said. "And parking is a big issue. Students have to be able to park, of course." An office building, she said, will have two or three parking spaces per office -- not the approximately 25 spaces the college would need.
Despite the shortages, the college continues to try to attract more customers.
"If we're really serving the community, we have to grow," Duncan said. "Even if there were no population growth, we have to grow." She said the college plans to reach out more to senior citizens and wants to expand its vocational and health care programs.
At a recent general plan meeting, Duncan said community members warned her that if the college didn't act fast to buy land for the future, the college might get built out.
Despite the crowding and the urgency of the problem, Roger Caplan, a member of the college's board of trustees, said the college would rather have this problem than any other. The college is a business, after all, and the more customers it can accommodate, the better off it will be.
"It's an exciting time, it really is," Caplan said. "I mean, these are good problems."
Even Ivester, who wanted to take those art and music classes, is a good sport about the crowding. She realizes it means she simply has to help raise more money.
"I think it's really important that we do expand," she said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful jewel here in Howard County, and to really be able to take advantage of it I think is a wonderful thing."