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The Baltimore Sun

Central Maryland's community colleges will have a vital function to fulfill once the influx of military jobs and attendant contractors under the base realignment and closure process gets under way. The problem is, no one can quite predict what that function will be.

There could be a demand for midcareer credits and professional training from the contractors and military personnel themselves. Or it might be that their spouses, having relocated, will be looking for the sort of training - in who knows what fields - to get new jobs here. Or simply that their children, as they leave high school, will put new demands on the community colleges for undergraduate education.

Perhaps the most important question, for now, is whether people will follow the jobs to Maryland, or if the bulk of those jobs will be filled by those already here. A study by Towson University suggests that 70 percent of the incoming jobs will be vacant, and thus filled by Marylanders; some dispute that. What happens on this score could make a crucial difference.

Here's the central dilemma: It's late to start planning, but nobody's sure what to plan for. A classroom building that is proposed today would open to students in 2012, at the earliest. By that time, the surge will already be three years old. But in a way that's OK, because the state doesn't have the money to spend on big new projects anyway. Cecil County Community College, for instance, wants to open a satellite campus at the old Bainbridge Naval Training Center on the Susquehanna, not far from Aberdeen Proving Ground. It's probably a good idea, but the money for it isn't going to be coming from Annapolis anytime soon, given the other demands stemming from BRAC and the impending budget squeeze.

This means the community colleges - in Harford and Anne Arundel counties, especially - are going to have to be on their toes and flexible and creative and modest in their ambitions. Harford is weighing a capital fundraising drive, in search of private donations. Harford and Cecil have entered into partnerships with Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, respectively; this is a good start, but both have a long way to go. Harford and Arundel operate higher-education centers that make it possible to take graduate-level courses through four-year universities - another good idea that needs to be pushed further.

These partnerships make increased capacity possible. So do online courses, and the use of high school classrooms at night; that's not a perfect arrangement, but it works.

At their best, community colleges can be unusually responsive to demand. Anne Arundel's must be one of the few educational institutions in the country with a program in cargo security; it's there because somebody wanted it, and the college got a $2.1 million federal grant to get it going.

"We're going to be in a reactive mode, but community colleges are used to that," says H. Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. But BRAC is really going to put them to the test. If they can rise to the challenge, they'll have made a strong argument for more state financial support in the years ahead.

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