Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the initial enrollment at the Community College of the District of Columbia. The number of students who enrolled in the fall was 1,779, not 960. This version has been corrected.
Rising enrollment is a mark of success for new D.C. community college

By Stephanie Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; B01

The only community college in the District is less than a year old, but it is attracting students as demand for postsecondary education booms.

The Community College of the District of Columbia split off from the chronically troubled University of the District of Columbia in August as an open-admission, two-year institution -- a change instituted by UDC's new president.

It has taken over UDC's associate degree, certificate and workforce training programs, and the university has become a four-year "flagship" with selective admissions. The executive director of the community college reports to UDC President Allen L. Sessoms.

Although education experts generally say that 11 months is not enough time to definitively assess an institution, a number of promising signs have emerged from the community college's first year. Rising enrollment is one: The number of students started at about 1,779 in the fall, then more than doubled to 2,335. Nearly three-fourths of the roughly 700 first-time freshmen stayed the full year, and campus officials say half have registered for fall classes. Already, 116 students have earned degrees from the institution, thanks to previously accumulated credits from UDC.

Although the community college shared facilities and classes with UDC last year, it is also slowly increasing its offerings. It has more than 35 full-time faculty members and two dozen associate degree and certificate programs, with new programs in automotive technology, construction management and fashion merchandising set to roll out this fall.

CCDC is starting as two-year colleges are enjoying a kind of renaissance. In the Washington region in the 2009-10 academic year, community college enrollment increased by 12,000 students, or 10 percent. Students are signing up in record numbers nationwide, though budget cuts make it impossible to accommodate them all.

Low tuition and a practical focus are big draws in the recession, said Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges. CCDC is not the only two-year institution to emerge in that context; the College of Western Idaho, in Boise, opened in 2008.

"There's clearly a need," Kent said, "particularly for families who are looking for a college education at good value, and also for adult learners who may have been thrown out of work and need some skills to be competitive."

CCDC's students are most likely to choose vocational majors, including nursing and allied health, medical radiography and education. According to the latest available data, most of the students are African American, ages 18 to 29, residents of wards 4 and 7, and products of public high schools.

Facing competition

Because the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program gives District residents money toward tuition at institutions including two-year colleges in the Washington area, CCDC competes for students who might instead look to Northern Virginia Community College and other nearby systems. The challenge is to effectively demonstrate the value of "staying here and going to local institutions, because it's easier and cheaper," said Ann-Marie Waterman, associate vice president for enrollment management.

Michael Moore, 45, dropped out of community colleges in New Jersey and Virginia before coming to CCDC. He chose it for its low cost and proximity to Metro and said he is generally pleased with the quality of instruction: "It's not like you're in a big auditorium setting. It's one-on-one."

After working dead-end jobs and serving 11 years in prison for drug-related charges, Moore said he realized "the only way to turn it around was a decent education." Now in his third semester, he hopes to leverage his business and computer science training into a job that combines both.

Others see the community college as a steppingstone to higher education. Mari Anlet, 32, plans to transfer his coursework to a four-year institution, study pharmacy and leave his minimum-wage job as a waiter. "It feels good for me because it was my dream to become a student and line up my future," said the Ethiopia native. "After two years, I'll graduate."

But students said they still run into problems that existed before the flagship and the community college separated, notably frustrating encounters with the administration.

"If everything is running smooth for you, if you have no issues, you're going to enjoy this school," said Val Ang, 21, an aspiring aerospace engineer at UDC who said he has had problems sorting out financial aid. "As soon as you have that one little mistake, it becomes very difficult."

In the eyes of critics, the list of UDC's troubles is a long one: poorly maintained facilities, chronic mismanagement, high administrative overhead. As both a four-year and a two-year campus, it had historically low retention and graduation rates. Less than half of every fall class that entered from 2000 to 2008 returned the following year, and the vast majority did not earn associate degrees within three years.

Its future could hardly have looked bleaker to UDC professor Meredith Rode in 1989, when she helped write a report that declared that the university "appears to have no shared vision, nothing that everybody buys into."

An air of hope

Although few deny that the campuses face an upward battle, members of both institutions say they generally view the split with cautious optimism.

"I've been here through a lot of turbulence," said Rode, chair of UDC's mass media, visual and performing arts department, "and I am really inspired, uplifted and hopeful about UDC's future, including the community college and the flagship. Things are happening."

Jonathan Gueverra, chief executive of the community college, cites its increased enrollment as a sign of success. "The university by itself, when it served those students as a single institution, wasn't able to get that many of them to come back," he said. "If we're able to do that and sustain that, something we're doing is clearly working."

This fall, many of CCDC's classes and programs will relocate to a nine-story, 88,000-square-foot building on North Capitol Street, near Union Station. Planned future locations include the Patricia R. Harris Education Center in Southeast and the former Bertie Backus Middle School and the Excel Institute, both in Northeast.

The moves are a step toward realizing the goal of an independent report released in November, which recommended that CCDC become fully independent of the four-year college. That process has presented faculty members with some unforeseen and unusual challenges.

Helen Krauthamer, an English professor at UDC, said her department is trying to cope without the seven faculty members who have transferred to the community college.

Krauthamer said she is optimistic about the division -- as long as each campus gets what it needs. "UDC is a small school," she said, "and I'm kind of of the mind that we should try to stay together as much as possible because we don't have many resources to split among two places. It's hard enough to keep one institution going."

It will take a while to see whether the split works. It will take even longer to see whether it helps the city's education system at large. The players say they can only wait and hope for the best.

"Not everything has an immediate answer," Rode said. "You can't do something like this without complexity, but I think it's the right thing to do."

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