Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Community college is key to our future

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As the new president of Montgomery College, I want to share some of my initial impressions of the college and the community I now call home.

I knew I had come to the right state when I read of a recent speech by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a speech where he said, ‘‘Diversity is our greatest strength as a people.” One of the governor’s main themes was to call for increasing minorities’ access to higher education. I could not agree more, and I think community colleges are at the forefront of this important effort.

Back in the 1920s, a National Geographic reporter, taken by Maryland’s geographic diversity, dubbed it ‘‘America in miniature.” My first impression of Montgomery College was similar. Except that when I looked around at Montgomery College, I saw the world in miniature. And in our student body, I saw the best of the world. There is no majority race in our student body; rather, students of every race, ethnicity and religion are learning, leading and getting an education — together. And these students, who choose from an array of credit and non-credit programs, are brought together because of Montgomery College. It is an extraordinary place, due not only to these students but also to our excellent, award-winning faculty and staff.

I have also found something else extraordinary in Montgomery County. I have found a community that truly puts education first, from the community’s involvement in the schools, to the public and political support for education funding, including higher education.

As someone new to the area, my early impression is that this is a county that ‘‘gets it,” that understands how an unwavering commitment to education contributes to making the county the economic powerhouse that it is, with an educated workforce that is hard to rival. I would add that community colleges such as ours play a key role in preparing this workforce.

For example, people don’t often realize that many scientists and engineers get their start at community colleges. The National Academy of Engineering notes that 40 percent of engineers earning bachelor’s degrees attended community colleges.

Using that one industry as an example, consider the success and reach of the engineering program at Montgomery College. Last fall, we had close to 750 students enrolled in our engineering program — students with plans to transfer to top engineering schools in Maryland and across the nation. And yes, these students represent the great diversity of our student body; more than 70 percent of them are members of a minority group.

The good news is we have a Funds for Improvement in Post Secondary Education grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand the program even further.

The bad news is we are concerned that we may be unable to meet the heightened demand for our high quality engineering and science programs. Here at Montgomery College, space and outdated facilities are a major constraint. Our ability to contribute to a thriving, knowledge-based economy is, in large part, contingent upon having up-to-date classrooms and lab facilities. That is why we are attempting to build or modernize 56 classrooms and 109 labs to meet the increasing demand for biology and other classes linked to our state’s growing bioscience industry.

That is also why one of my first priorities as president has been to work with our governor and the General Assembly to seek funding for the college’s $40 million capital request. The funding would go to creating additional classrooms and⁄or labs on all three campuses: Rockville, Germantown and Takoma Park⁄Silver Spring.

Does this sound like a substantial investment in our campuses? Perhaps. But consider these facts: Our fall 2006 credit program enrollment of nearly 23,000 was second in the state only to the University of Maryland, College Park. And considering we are the college more Montgomery County Public School graduates enroll in than any other, considering we transfer about 4,000 students a year to outstanding colleges and universities here in Maryland and across the county, considering we educate so many of the nurses, teachers and technicians needed by our regional workforce, then it strikes me as a necessary investment.

I am hopeful and optimistic that our county and state leaders will agree that real investment in education must include community colleges like ours. It is exciting for me to watch County Executive Ike Leggett, Governor O’Malley, the County Council and General Assembly make bold plans for the future, optimistic plans where education is at the forefront. I, too, am optimistic, hopeful that these plans will include support for the places that open doors to opportunity, to a college degree — our state’s community colleges.

Brian K. Johnson recently succeeded Charlene R. Nunley as Montgomery College president.