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Md. community colleges increasingly focused on updating skills

Years ago, community colleges were mainly seen as a stepping stone to four-year universities. While they still provide those resources for students today, these higher education institutions also have become a vital training resource for people looking to upgrade their knowledge and skills.

“I think community colleges have always been a place where students could update skills whether or not they have a college degree, but with the economic recession, more and more people turned to community colleges because they were looking for quality but at an affordable price with the recession,” said Elizabeth S. Homan, Howard Community College’s executive director of communications and marketing.

“I think as the economy has improved, community colleges remain attractive because they offer value so students can find classes that are applicable to what they are doing in the workplace or to advance in the workforce or to change careers but it is going to be at a cost that they can still find affordable.”

Kip Kunsman, Anne Arundel Community College’s assistant dean for workforce development, believes the central mission of any community college, since its infancy, is to provide training to people to be practitioners by giving them skills that are usable and viable in the workplace.

This role has not changed over time but it has evolved into a more complex, higher level of education and training. Cybersecurity classes are an example. “I think many people are surprised to learn that such high-level learning is occurring at our community colleges across the nation,” he said.

The Community College of Baltimore County also has a popular cybersecurity program. “We can’t keep people in the seats,” said college President Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis. “They get hired by the cybersecurity companies from all around the state because the certification, the skills are so important to the work that is being done across our state.”

Health care fields and skill trades such as heating and air conditioning and plumbing are quite popular among community college students. Local colleges offer both credit and non-credit courses.

“People are looking to the college to help them gain new opportunities in what we call middle-income positions,” Kunsman said. “(The jobs) are sustainable. They can sustain a family. They are jobs that have futures. They are, ultimately, careers. They are not just a quick fix in a dead end. We try to create programming that is going to be able to promote lifelong sustainment and/or growth.”

‘Squarely into good jobs’

Many job fields do not require a bachelor’s degree for full engagement in the occupation. “A bachelor’s degree is always a nice credential for people to have, but we have so many programs where the associate degree credential will put people squarely into good jobs with good benefits,” Kurtinitis said.

There are a variety of reasons people return to school, according to local college officials. Some realized their current job can’t support their family and they want to get a better skill set for a higher paying job. Others need a certification so they may move up in their current field.

Retirees have come looking to break into new areas, and veterans are looking to gain skills for civilian employment.

The average age of a community college student is between 27 to 29. “Working professionals entering our classrooms will find students who look like them and also find other students who are working to upgrade their skills or to change careers,” Homan said.

Flexible options

Many returning students are balancing full-time jobs, child care and other commitments, so community colleges have a variety of different ways to aid their academic endeavors.

Many have multiple locations throughout their area to serve a larger population. Some offer child care facilities or summer camps so parents may go learn while their kids are having fun.

Credit for prior learning either through a job or military experience may also lead to credit toward an associate degree or certification.

Community colleges in Maryland attract the bulk of the state’s part-time students. Some 67 percent of the state’s 127,150 college students attended community colleges in the fall of 2015, compared to 31 percent who attended four-year public institutions, according to data from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

“We have as many people here at night taking classes as we do during the high point of 8 (a.m.) to (noon) in the early part of the day,” Kurtinitis said. “We have classes on the weekends. We have some that start at 6 a.m. for the late shift that go to class before they go home to sleep. We have over 1,000 courses online and that number is growing exponentially each year. … We are really looking for ways to directly serve the populations that we know we must serve.”