Horatio Alger's heroes probably never went to college, but if they had lived in Prince George's County, the probably would have attended Prince George's Community College.
The 11-year-old institution - set on 150 acres of former tobacco land - is not necessarily the only road from rags to riches, but both college officials and students at the two-year institution believe it is a start.
"It provides a nuts-and-bolts education at bargain prices," said Tim Williams, community college student body president.
The college's president - who himself started at the bottom of the county school system and worked up to the top slot at the community college - takes pride in the fact that the college is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and offers educational opportunity to a wide range of county residents.
"We are more like a 7-11 store than a community college," said College President Robert I. Bickford, a 49-year-old father of five who has lived in the county all his life.
Bickford said more than a decade of change has swirled through the college and the burgeoning county nestled around it, leaving both the mission of the college and the goals of the county intertwined.
The college's open-enrollment policy, its tuition and its flexible class hours have enabled the community collefe to become the backbone of higher education for the average county resident, according to both students and faculty at the college.
The ability of the college to attract a wide range of county residents has contributed to the college's dramatic increase in part-time students, college officials said. The college has fone from 2,856 part-time students in 1970 to 9,308 last year.
Bickford said the collefe is tune with the county executive's "New Quality" marketing strategy to economically uplift the county because the college helps students get jobs and better careers.
"You can look at all of the brochures that advertise Prince George's County and you will see they all point to this community college . . . That's because it works."
More than 50 students, who were recently interviewed, said smaller class sizes and lower tuition costs, when compared to larger institutions were major selling points of the community college.
The University of Maryland - which many students used as a comparison - has approximately 32,000 students compared to the 16,000 students currently enrolled at the county community college.
Students at the community college - who said they dreaded the possiblity of attending the university's mammoth lecture classes with up to 500 students in some cases - said they preferred the average 25-student class size which exists at the community college.
The fact that it is cheaper to attend Prince George's Community College is particularly significant, according to the school's student body president. "We are not like Montgomery Community College, which has plenty of money to spend. We have students and a county that are both very concerned about costs," said Williams.
Next fall the Prince George's college is planning to raise the tuition by $2.50 per credit hour, bringing the total cost to $15.50 per unit. Williams said students are grumbling about the increase, but that no one had marched on the college president's office because "our tuition is less than most community colleges in the area." Montgomery College this year charged $23 per unit.
Williams said students are angrier at the Prince George's County government than at the college because they believe the county is not paying its share of the college's operating costs, thus forcing students to pay more in tuition.
Under Maryland law, the county is required to pay 28 percent of the college's operating costs while students pay 22 percent. The state pays 50 percent.
According to the projected $16.4 million community college budget for fiscal 1979, the county is proposing to pay only pay 24 percent in operating costs. Last year, the county paid approximately the same percentage, giving the college $3,924,529, compared to the student contribution of $3,950,122. By comparison, Montgomery County pays approximately 34 percent of its community college's budget, which is 6 percent more than is required by the state, college officials said.
Richard C. Hardwick, assistant to the Prince George's college president said: "The county does pay somewhat less than it is supposed to, but that is through an agreement with the college."
Hardwick said the county - which by law approves the college's operating budget - has agreed in the past to let the college raise its tuition if the college agreed to let the county pay less.
The community college has not always gone along with the county, according to Hardwick, who said a previous college president sued the county twice to get back money the county owed the college.
"The former president won the suit only to find that the judge let the county off because the county did not have money in its budget to pay the college . . . The suits only created friction between the county and the college," said Hardwick.
According to Hardwick, Bickford - who was sworn into office in 1972 following a three-year leveling of the school's budget - decided it was better to work with the county than to fight it. As a result, Hardwick said, the college's operating budget has increased every year since Bickford was appointed.
"I learned as a high school referee that it is sometimes better not to make all the calls," said Bickford, who added be believed it did not make sense to make the county mad when it holds the purse strings.
Bickford started his teaching career at Suitland High School as a coach shortly before the community college began there as an evening shcool in 1958.
IN 1967, he was appointed director of the evening division of the college. In 1972, he was appointed college president.
Bickford's colleagues - who affectionately call him "Bick" - say his folksy, country, high school coach-style conceals a "sly-fox" who knows the county like a chicken coop.
The college president himself admits he has an unusual relationship with prominent county figures. He says his success is centered on the fact that "I'm not seeking political office.
"Bickford is quick to make note of his friendship with County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., whom he says he can call at any time for a personal conference.
"Winnie Kelly graduated with his daughter two years ago and got his A.A. from here . . . sure I can cuss and scream at him more than anybody else because I have that kind of rapport with him," said Bickford.
"I make it a point at talk with Kelly's staff on smaller issues," said Bickford, "because I don't want to bother Kelly for just anything."
Bickford says he just tries to get along with Kelly and his staff. "I don't walk around with a sign on my back saying I'm president . . . if you don't know it you're crazy . . ."
Though Bickford says he's no politician, he is apparently not beyond using a little politics.
"When senior citizens at the college began complaining to the county executive about the fact the community college did not have a swimming pool, Kelly came running back to me and said 'Bick I know you told those seniors to tell me about the swimming pool' - of course I did," said Bickford with a grin.
Bickford's style has also played an important role in his relationship with the student body president. "We trust Bick and we really feel he acts in the best interest of the students."
The crop of students the college harvests each year is really what makes Prince George's Community College unique, according to college officials, who remember when the college was considered "13th and 14th grades" for high school students before it became a career center and stepping ground to higher education for both youth and adults.
Students, who say they still feel their pulse quicken when their friends at the University of Maryland kid them about attending a community college, have gotten used to the community college and see it as a tool to further themselves. Since its inception the college has always been considered an avenue for opportunity in the county.
The college was founded in 1958 at Suitland High School with 185 students. It began at the same time that a county building boom made Prince George's one of the fastest growing counties in the country. This building boom - which caused the county school system to build a classroom a day to meet the demands of growth - set off a wave of expansion at the college.
In 1967, the present college campus was constructed along Landover Road with an opening enrollment of more than 2,000 students. Since then, the college has expanded from four to seven buildings, with one more planned in the near future.
The current enrollment of 16,000 students, both full and part-time, includes a wide diversity of the county's population. There are policemen, housewives, Vietnam veterans, senior citizens and recent high school graduates, all attending classes in the county's low-budget educational melting pot.
The college, which uses fire houses, hospitals and local schools as part of its extension program for learning, pays its teachers salaries that are the fourth highest in the state for higher education.
The administration of the college is centered around a policy-making board of trustees that has given a great deal of leeway to the current president in the day-to-day operation of the college, officials at the institution say. There are five deans and an assistant to the president of the college who are also involved in daily decision making.