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Housing trend hits 2-year colleges

Students living in four-person suites that are an easy stroll from classroom buildings, games of volleyball in a grassy courtyard and weekly programs run by resident advisers are all typical of campus life at four-year colleges and universities.

But Michael Allen was pleased to find these amenities in an unexpected place: a community college in Cumberland.

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Allen, 26, moved west from Baltimore and lived off campus for a year after deciding to enroll in the forestry program at Allegany College of Maryland. But with no car and limited local public transportation, he said he needed an on-campus option.

"It really does open up a large opportunity," Allen said, noting that many students come to the school from across Maryland and other states.

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Community colleges have traditionally been commuter schools focused on affordable education close to home. But in the last decade, a growing number of the schools have considered building housing as a way to meet student needs.

Community colleges in rural communities have felt the need to offer housing to draw a wider student base. And many community colleges are being inundated with an increasing number of younger, full-time students who are interested in such amenities.

There are 233 public community colleges in the United States with dormitory facilities - about a quarter of the two-year schools - and many of those built their housing in the past five to seven years, said Norma G. Kent, vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges are getting more traditional college-age students as a large population graduates high school and faces rising tuition and higher standards at four-year schools, Kent said.

"These are the kinds of students who would like dorms," he said.

Community colleges are "typically thought of as commuter colleges, and for the most part that is still true," Kent said. "But we're always evolving, so this seems to be something to watch."

Local options fall short

In Maryland, community colleges in Garrett and Allegany counties have housing, and schools in Howard and Queen Anne's counties are studying the issue.

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Garrett College has had housing since 1994, driven by a significant number of nonlocal students who go to McHenry for specialized programs, such as adventure sports and natural resources.

"Because we live in kind of a tourist area, housing can be very expensive," said Lillian Mitchell, dean of academic and student affairs. Plus, "we don't have what most people would consider public transportation in Garrett County."

Allegany College of Maryland built its housing units adjacent to campus three years ago. Donald Alexander, president of the college, said his school, like Garrett, draws noncounty students to statewide programs that offer low tuition to all Marylanders. Others come to attend its well-respected health programs such as dental hygiene and radiologic technology.

"The local housing market wasn't adequate enough," Alexander said.

He said he is pleased with the results of adding housing. "It's increased the diversity of the culture," he said. "It's kind of changed the nature of the institution from a local one to a regional- and national-type of institution."

Allegany took over management of its housing in the past year from a private company in order to add more housing-related staff and programs, and to foster student life. Garrett College is renegotiating its arrangement with the contractor that runs its dorms.

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Drive toward dorms

On the Eastern Shore, Stuart M. Bounds, president of Chesapeake College, said changing demographics are driving his school and others toward housing.

In Maryland, 62 percent of high school graduates who stay in state attend a community college, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

Bounds said his Queen Anne's campus has seen a 15 percent increase in full-time students over one year.

The school also draws students from five counties - a distance of almost 100 miles end to end.

"Those students are interested in housing options," he said. In addition to carrying full course loads, he said, they are likely to spend time on campus getting involved in clubs and extracurricular activities.

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Bounds said his school would like to work with Queen Anne's County to attract developers to build multi-family housing near the campus. If that doesn't work, he said his school could build apartments itself.

But, he noted, schools with housing do need to consider increasing security and offering more food service, among other issues.

Howard Community College officials plan to study those issues and others over the next year, said President Mary Ellen Duncan.

One important question is the availability of space on the campus in Columbia Town Center.

One student, who lives in the Hickory Ridge community next to the college, said he is concerned about the impact of replacing athletic fields in sight of his home with dorms.

"We just can't handle the traffic," said David Greisman, who is studying journalism at the school. He is also concerned that crime could increase in the neighborhood.

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Fostering 'experience'

But Shannon Zirkle, outgoing president of HCC's Student Government Association, believes about 75 percent of Howard students are in favor of adding housing to the campus.

"I thought it was a great idea," said Zirkle, a photography major from Mount Airy. "It would give people the experience of a four-year school."

Duncan said a more active campus community is one good reason to consider housing. "You can do a lot of other projects with students [living on campus] that you couldn't do with a commuting campus," she said.

She also said international students would benefit, and "a number of studies show retention rates improve with student housing."

Ideally, housing could be supported with the rent students pay and could be constructed and maintained by an outside contractor, Duncan said. The project would not use state or county money, she said.

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Many of Maryland's community colleges are content to draw students within driving distance, or to serve wider populations with multiple campuses and learning centers.

But student demand could change the way schools look at campus life. More students at community colleges "are not the typical working adults," Duncan said. "They want ... a real college experience. If Maryland continues to see the growth in its traditional-age student population, I think we'll see more of the community colleges exploring [housing]."


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