Mary Ellen Duncan has seen enrollment climb during her nearly five years as president of Howard Community College. Now she is spearheading a $4.6 million capital campaign -- the kind of fundraising that until recently was rare for community colleges. Duncan spoke with staff writer Ylan Q. Mui about the school's growth.

QWhat major changes have you seen during your tenure?

AIn the past five years, we have seen growth in the number of students. In the current academic year, 6,200 students enrolled in the fall semester alone. The upcoming spring semester likely will bring record enrollments for the college. Students do not come to HCC and follow a lock-step pattern. They are coming and going, depending on their goals, their financial or family obligations and their performance.

Also during this time, the college has tried to make progress on its master facilities plan. . . . We are designing the next building -- the visual and performing arts instructional space now housed in temporary, portable buildings or makeshift basement space in the administration building.

That visual and performing arts space is going to cost a lot of money, $19 million. Why build it now? Why embark on such an aggressive capital campaign?

The state of Maryland instituted two matching programs -- one to create endowments and one to fund technology. These two programs started many colleges moving in the direction of more aggressive fundraising.

If the college is to maintain its margin of excellence, then we have to seek support from companies and individuals in the community. The county and state governments cannot meet all of our needs, but we cannot use that as an excuse for not moving the college forward.

Community colleges across the country are trying to upgrade their profiles by attracting higher-caliber students and teachers and becoming jumping-off points for four-year colleges. Do you see HCC following that trend?

Community colleges are becoming a preferred entry point into higher education because they give students great value for an affordable price. They also offer a freshman student small classes and academic support when it is most needed. I don't believe that community colleges will "upgrade their profile" by attracting better students. Because we are open-admissions institutions, we will have to be judged by the education we provide for the students who choose to attend.

Howard Community College attracts very well-prepared students, but that reflects the aspirations of people in this community and the quality and high expectations of the public schools. I heard the [Howard County] superintendent of schools, John O'Rourke, say that we need even higher expectations. That is true for Howard Community College as well as the public schools.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s capital budget includes $10 million for HCC's visual and performance arts center. But more construction is on the way. How can community colleges make a successful pitch for continued expansion in the face of the state's budget crisis?

First of all, community colleges have to do what they can to support the growth of the economy. The state and counties already have a large investment in community colleges, and this needs to be leveraged in economic downturns. Community colleges will continue to see enrollment growth, and we will need to serve the additional students to keep the workforce skilled and prepared.

I think if the colleges continue to be responsive to local and state needs, the necessary support will be there. Without state support, community colleges will be less affordable, and we will not be able to maintain the high educational attainments that Maryland currently enjoys. Everyone suffers in budget crises. We will do our best to be part of the solution.

MARY ELLEN DUNCAN