A crowd gathered in the lobby of Howard Community College's new 105,000-square-foot instructional lab building last month to watch a group of students cut the ceremonial ribbon.
"We stand here in our brand-new building ... but we don't stop," said Roger N. Caplan, chairman of the board of trustees. "Now we're looking to just the other side of the quad," he said, where builders will break ground for a nearly $20 million arts and humanities building in the spring.
Students, faculty, staff and supporters are thrilled to have the school's first new classroom, office and computer lab space in a decade. But HCC's growth in recent years - given momentum by booming enrollment, expanding course offerings and a flourishing reputation - has the college community always looking to the next step.
The number of students attending HCC has risen steadily over several years, with the full-time equivalent enrollment jumping 19.8 percent between fiscal year 1998 and the present.
Between 2001 and 2011, the school anticipates growth of 34 percent among full-time students and 14 percent among part-time students.
In a county known for one of the best public school systems in the country and a highly educated population, 44 percent of Howard residents who choose Maryland colleges attend the local two-year institution. Those numbers are echoed across the state, where 53 percent of Maryland undergraduates go to community colleges, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
The lower cost of attending a two-year institution close to home is appealing during difficult economic times, said Duncan, particularly when young people are still deciding what they want to study. Also, four-year schools are raising their entrance requirements and limiting their class sizes just as the high school population is expanding.
"We are not diverted by a lot of things a major institution has to attend to," said Mary Ellen Duncan, HCC president. "We have one job, and that is to try to get more people through the higher education system and to be sure they are competent and well-prepared to go on to the next steps."
In addition to a growing number of traditional students, adults are seeking more job training through HCC and filling noncredit classes for personal enrichment. In the past year, the college provided customized training for 6,688 employees of 60 companies.
The school began a little more than three decades ago with one building, dedicated in 1971, on a piece of land along the Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia.
Construction in the 1970s and 1980s saw the one building grow into an interconnected complex of classrooms, student service areas, a library, a dining hall and a theater. Two noncampus buildings for professional development were added in the 1990s, but it was not until the arrival of a new president, Mary Ellen Duncan, in 1998 that growth really started to pick up.
In 2000, a Children's Learning Center was added in response to a strong need among students for day care. In 2001, the school broke ground on the instructional lab building.
Last year, athletic facilities were upgraded to include a renovated pool, new locker rooms, a new gym floor, a fitness room and air conditioning. New playing fields and a track will follow shortly.
"We can't allow tough economic times to stagnate the institution." Caplan said.
Thousands of full-time students at HCC "expect a full college experience," Duncan said. "They are spending all day here and the evening here and joining activities. They expect to have access to the library ... computers and athletic facilities."
In the next fiscal year, the school will be coping with reduced state aid by increasing tuition and trimming the money spent on equipment and supplies. But HCC is to receive $9.6 million to cover half of the 78,000-square-foot visual and performing arts building. The rest is expected to come from the county and private donations.
Lighting and a track
The school is also supposed to get $815,000 for outdoor lighting on campus and a competition-sized track, according to the proposed budget.
"There is a huge demand for art and humanities," Caplan said.
Enrollment in arts programs on the whole has grown 44 percent over three years while enrollment in performing arts classes has shot up 108 percent in eight years.
Other growth areas
Other areas are growing as well. This fall saw the addition of degree programs in athletic training, exercise science and health care management and administration. Degrees in English, math and photonics were also added, among others.
The previous year, the catalog expanded to include 17 new degree programs.
Innovative programs for students are also thriving. Three years ago, the Silas Craft Collegians Program began to give financial and academic support to students who did not excel in high school. The Rouse Scholars program, celebrating its 10th year, offers academic challenges and leadership opportunities to highly motivated and skilled students.
The same day that HCC officially opened its new academic building, its Commission on the Future offered numerous plans to continue the school's growth.
The commission was started when Duncan arrived at the school. This year, more than 70 community, business and education leaders served on task forces to discuss ways to improve the college.
Goals include serving the business community more thoroughly, educating students to become successful entrepreneurs, improving student access to baccalaureate degrees, enhancing international learning opportunities, increasing technology and adding more degree programs that will be useful in the future.
"Howard County is a pretty dynamic community with a lot of growth, a lot going on, a lot of bright, caring people," said Joanne Davis, chairwoman of the college's Commission on the Future and a senior associate consultant with the University of Maryland Center for Quality and Productivity. "The school needs to continue to widen the circle, widen and deepen the understanding" among community members.
HCC has a lot to offer traditional students, workers, senior citizens and others seeking educational opportunities.
"The breadth of it is amazing," Davis said.