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Groundbreaking ideas: Texas community college leaders revise their master plans to carve their niche in a highly competitive market.

SOMETIMES THE IMPETUS FOR MASTER PLANNING at the institutional level begins at the state level. This is the case in Texas, where the Higher Education Coordinating Board has instituted its "Closing the Gaps" initiative (www.thecb.state.tx.us /ClosingTheGaps) The effort is aimed at attracting 630,000 more students to higher education than there are today by 2015 (the original goal of 500,000 more students was revised).

Anticipating that half of this group will be new community college students, and that 70 percent of those students are likely to attend urban community colleges, these schools are working to meet enrollment demands while attracting and retaining a diverse student body through master plan reviews and updates.

LOFTY PROBLEM, LOFTY GOALS

Closing the Gaps addresses the problem of decreasing higher education enrollment and graduation rates while the state's population continues to increase tremendously. According to state board documents, "fewer degrees and certificates earned leads to a less-educated workforce. The state's workers are not able to support a growing state economy."

By next year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Texas will become a minority-majority state, with Hispanics making up slightly more than 40 percent of the population, blacks comprising 11 percent, and whites representing 45 percent. As of 2004, Hispanics made up more than one-third of the Texas population, as compared to 14.1 percent for the United States. Yet, in Texas, Hispanic and black students are enrolling in higher education at rates lower than white students. About 5 percent of the Texas population was enrolled in higher education as of 2000. Closing the Gaps seeks to raise this to 5.7 percent by 2015.

Of the new students expected, approximately 60 percent will begin their higher ed careers at community and technical colleges. There are now 50 community college districts in Texas, with 74 campuses and four technical colleges with two extension centers. In the fall of 1999, students at these colleges made up 44 percent of the higher education enrollment. This number was expected to grow through the Closing the Gaps initiative. Not surprisingly, some colleges are already feeling the impact. About five years ago, Dallas County Community College District enrolled about 55,000 full-time students. Now the system of seven colleges has 63,000-plus students. Overall in Texas higher education, enrollment increased by 200,970 students (just over 21 percent) between 2000 and 2005.

COMMUNITY COLLEGE MASTER PLANNING

Community colleges serve the needs of inhabitants surrounding their campuses. Closing the Gaps enables nontraditional students to attend institutions of higher education through financial aid and grant programs. In other words, students who previously thought they were ineligible to attend college, whether for financial or cultural reasons, are targeted for this program.

Because of their locations, community colleges have an advantage in attracting these students. But to accommodate their cultural and financial needs, master plans must be reworked and updated. Community colleges need to distinguish themselves from one another to attract the greatest number of these new students. They also want to provide student services to meet the unique needs of these students so they will stay in college and complete their course-work. This is a new challenge for community colleges.

The master plan sets the direction for the community college, allowing for growth and change. Creating a master plan is more than deciding where and when to build new facilities. It addresses the need for increases in student services (e.g., counseling, placement, and financial support) and how those services are delivered, while developing solutions to help students with different cultural backgrounds and expectations. The master plan also allows for a detailed examination of the area surrounding the campus. For example, are there opportunities for partnerships in the community? Here are some ways the master plan can cover these and other key areas:

FOCUS: STUDENT SERVICES

Looking to stay ahead of the competition, community colleges need to meet the market demands of students while maintaining the ideals of higher education. One way to do this is by improving student services. Colleges are notorious for their fragmented registration processes. Registering for classes usually involves going from building to building to building, waiting in dark corridors in long lines. To alleviate this back and forth waiting process, colleges are creating one-stop servicing centers, locating all the services necessary for enrolling and registering for courses in one facility. Some centers even include bookstores for a true one-stop experience.

"This is a different time-saving effort for students, and it's helped with the enrollment," says Clyde Porter, assistant vice chancellor/director of facilities and district architect for the Dallas County Community College District. A campus with an accelerated and easy registration process appeals to students.

Community colleges are offering other services not typically provided at these institutions, as well. One trend: Student housing available on or near campus, allowing students to work on their first two to three years of a college degree at the community college level without living at home. Appealing amenities might include a real kitchen, wireless internet, and cable television; these may be a deciding factor in college selection decisions.

Or a college may offer childcare, helping parents have the opportunity to get an affordable college degree. Brookhaven College in Dallas is embarking on a joint venture with Head Start to build a preschool education center on the campus. The facility, which recently had its groundbreaking, will accommodate 142 preschoolers and serve a dual purpose: Enabling parents of young children to continue their education, knowing their children are well cared for; and enabling early-childhood education students the opportunity to get hands-on practical experience by working at this facility.

FOCUS: COURSE AND PROGRAM OFFERINGS

Another way to increase a community college's service territory beyond its traditional boundaries are niche programs. Paris Junior College (Texas) has offered a jewelry technology program since 1942. Students from all over the United States and the world attend this program due to its excellent reputation within the jewelry industry and its community college affordability.

Community colleges can also increase course offerings by creating access to four-year programs and professors without asking students to travel away from the community college campus, allowing students to get the better part of a four-year degree at a community college tuition rate while giving the four-year schools more exposure to potential students. These are often known as "University Centers" or MITC (Multiple Instructional Teaching Centers). The centers consist of articulation agreements with four-year institutions to permit their professors to offer university-level courses at the community college. The four-year schools create a course track starting at the community college level and finishing at the four-year institution.

FOCUS: UNUSED SPACE

Classroom utilization rates vary between community colleges and universities, primarily due to a large population of working students attending community colleges. This leads to very heavy classroom use in the early morning and evening hours and light use in the late morning and afternoons at the community college. During other times, classrooms are empty. A solution: Lease these buildings to nearby four-year campuses. This gives four-year colleges other options to manage limited campus space while giving the community colleges other avenues for community outreach.

FOCUS: CAMPUS FACILITIES

Master plans are often typified by proposing new facilities costing tens of millions of dollars while leaving unresolved many years of undirected renovations and chopped-up, inefficient spaces. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking brand-new facilities will solve all crowding problems. Meanwhile, buildings designed for programs no longer relevant go underused or are hastily converted to accommodate overflow. Determining new purposes or functions for campus facilities can be a smart way to reuse space effectively and frugally. Re-purposing (also known as re-functioning) involves renovating existing buildings to fix their deficiencies by using the master plan as a blueprint to look at the existing campus facilities as a clean slate.

For example, determine how to move new programs into old technical shop spaces for defunct welding programs. By reconfiguring and renovating the building, deferred maintenance issues get resolved and it may be possible to reclaim thousands of square feet of usable space that wouldn't have been available if the program had merely been placed directly into the unrenovated space.

FOCUS: LOCAL PARTNERSHIPS

Look for partnership opportunities around the community college campus. Are there high schools nearby? Develop agreements with school boards to allow high school students to attend community college during underused times (late mornings and afternoons), possibly earning college credit. Such a partnership can alleviate possible overcrowding at the high school level and allow the college access to students who may continue their education at this campus.

Also set up distance learning contracts with four-year universities, permitting community college students to take classes (through the use of technology) at the community college campus with students and professors at four-year universities far away.

And survey surrounding businesses. Does a local company need welders? Partnering can present an opportunity to help by creating a program to attract and train welders. In return, the company assists with the space and equipment needed for this program.

FOCUS: ENVIRONMENTAL SCANNING

Environmental scanning is a method of gathering information about outside events and trends that may affect the organization. Monitor and analyze the legislature, major businesses, the environment, and surrounding regions. Use this knowledge to plan for the future and anticipate changes. When the master plan becomes a continuous review of information and analysis, it is readily adaptable to the outside environment.

For example, an industry may leave the state, taking numerous jobs with it and decreasing the need for a particular program at a community college. Through environmental scanning, the college may have anticipated this event and already started planning with the surrounding community to develop another program to benefit the community and minimize the impact from the loss of jobs.

Porter understands the importance of awareness and flexibility. "Our master planning is not just centered on growth. It is centered on the demands of the marketplace. We want to provide the marketplace with the graduates they need. Not only are we providing students with an opportunity to get an education, we are providing them with opportunities to get employment in the marketplace," says Porter. An example is the shortage of nurses. Dallas community colleges have increased their nursing programs and switched their focus to providing facilities needed to train future nurses.

THE KEY TO SMART COMPETITION

Community colleges are just starting to realize the importance of being target masters and promoting the ideals of higher education in order to attract students. By creating a flexible, long-term master plan to offer services appealing to their target audience and through effectively reusing existing facilities, community colleges in any state can successfully support the efforts behind the Closing the Gaps initiative, attracting and retaining students while meeting the needs of the changing community college population.

R. Don Hensley is a senior vice president and the director of higher education for the educational facility design firm SHW Group, www.shwgroup.com. He can be reached at rdhensley@shwgroup.com. Patrick Calhoun is a planner/project designer with DSA Architects, a member of SHW Group. He has extensive community college campus master planning experience and can be reached at pmcalhoun@shwgroup.com.
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Author:Calhoun, Patrick
Publication:University Business
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Words:1870
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