The Emergence of Community Colleges

Since the late 1970s, community colleges have moved well beyond their traditional and limited role of preparing students for transfer to four-year colleges and universities.

During the past 10 years, two-year colleges have shrugged off their "junior" status and forged their own independent and unique institutional mission within the nation’s system of higher education. In many ways, they have taken on a much broader mission than that pursued by four-year colleges and universities.

Official notification of the changing status of community colleges arrived in 1992 when the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Community and Junior Colleges voted to change its name to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), dropping the "junior" tag once and for all.

With the adoption of a more wide-ranging mission, the challenge of managing community college facilities has grown more complex and often entails responsibilities much broader than those carried out by facility managers serving four-year institutions.

The Broader Educational Role of Community Colleges

According to a spokesperson for the AACC, community colleges today perform at least six distinct services for their communities.

First, there is the traditional role of preparing students for eventual transfer to a four-year institution.

Second, community colleges have become important centers for career training. Students can, for example, study for certificates qualifying them to work in various construction trades or in different capacities within the health care industry.

Third comes an area related to career training, but more narrow. Community colleges regularly offer courses designed to train students to perform specific tasks, like running a particular computer spreadsheet program or a specialized piece of construction equipment.

Continuing education forms a fourth area served by community colleges. Nurses, for example, may attend courses designed to provide credits necessary to retaining their certification. Senior citizens may take photography courses for self-improvement. Continuing education satisfies both specific and enrichment learning needs.

A fifth role, at times considered controversial, involves developmental educational services for students who graduate from secondary schools with inadequate skills in reading, mathematics and science. These courses of study begin at a precollege level. On occasion, community members have objected to these kinds of services, arguing that the public should not subsidize students repeating courses that should have been mastered in high school. On the other hand, developmental education efforts have proven effective. About 48 percent of the nation’s 1,100 community colleges offer welfare-to-work programs, for example. The success of those programs has led half of all other community colleges to plan to introduce programs for welfare recipients in the near future.

Last, but not least, community colleges have taken on the job of providing language education for two kinds of students. For those who do not speak English, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses provide avenues for entering the mainstream work force. Language education is also proving increasingly important to companies doing business overseas, throughout Europe and Asia, where it is important for company representatives to speak the language of customers and host governments.

Why have community colleges taken up these tasks? Why not four-year colleges? According to Dr. David R. Pierce, president of the AACC, while a number of four-year institutions provide some of these educational services, many community colleges provide them all.

"The evolution of the U.S. economy and society has created new educational needs that community colleges are particularly able to serve," says Dr. Pierce. "As we move ahead in this era of an information-based, service economy, the need for more education and training has emerged. This economy has created new kinds of jobs that require training at or below the associate degree level. In other words, many of these new jobs do not require baccalaureate degrees. That doesn’t mean that BA’s aren’t filling these jobs, but only that the majority can be filled by people with associate degrees or certificates."

Community colleges can logically fill these needs for three reasons, continues Dr. Pierce. First, community colleges already offer courses designed to satisfy the requirements of emerging job markets. In addition, community colleges offer a lower cost structure, better matched to the resources of students seeking training for these jobs. Finally, community colleges are accessible to virtually everyone. One or another community college lies within commuting distance of 97 percent of all Americans.

The Differences Between Conventional and Community College Facilities

The increasingly broad role played by community colleges creates facility management challenges quite different from those faced by facility managers at four-year institutions.

While four-year institutions grow to accommodate incremental increases in student populations, much of this expansion centers around existing campuses. Community college systems, on the other hand, must not only carry out campus expansions, but must also plan and construct major new campuses to satisfy the requirements of regional population growth.

Maintenance and renovation at community colleges must accommodate students who use facilities from early morning to late evening, six and seven days a week. In addition, maintenance, renovation and new construction at community colleges involve different kinds of facilities, from offices designed to suit large, part-time faculties to specialized facilities related to specific trades such as auto repair, construction and mortuary science.

Finally, these unique facility management tasks must be accomplished within the limits imposed by the lower tuitions that two-year colleges promise their communities.

Managing Facilities Designed to Fulfill the Mission of a Community College

The Phoenix-based Maricopa Community College District illustrates how complex the job of managing the facilities within a community college system can be.

In the past 10 years, the Maricopa district has grown to rival the size of the Los Angeles Community College district, the largest community college system in the country. Today, Maricopa serves approximately 100,000 students per semester and 200,000 students per year with a network of 10 major campuses, three education centers and numerous satellite facilities.

As one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, Maricopa must not only manage its existing facilities, but also those planned for construction in the next 10 to 20 years. A recent bond issue, for instance, will fund $387 million worth of facility business in the next 10 years, while also providing for property acquisitions that will eventually house new campuses.

"We look at the directions in which our communities are growing and use bond issues to buy land out ahead of that growth," says Arlen Solochek, manager of facility planning for the Maricopa Community College District. "Ten years later, in another bond issue, we’ll begin to build the first level of campus there.

"Right now, we’re finishing master planning for a new campus, and we’re purchasing the land for still another college that we’ll develop at some point in the future."

Money for land purchases will come from a $270-million segment of the bond issue earmarked for acquisitions as well as new construction, remodeling, site preparation work, utilities, energy conservation and upgrades related to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Solochek’s department must allocate another $87 million from the bond issue to technology upgrades and additions related to computers, telephone systems, audio-visual systems, and the wiring and cabling that accompanies technological installations. The remaining $30 million of the bond issue will go to supplies for occupational education, from books to specialized equipment.

All told, the bond issue will augment Maricopa’s annual budget allocations for new equipment, maintenance and renovation. Like many four-year institutions, Maricopa’s annual budgets cannot accommodate major technological changes such as the installation of new districtwide telephone systems or deferred maintenance like that required to upgrade air conditioning systems to CFC-compliant chillers.

Managing the Facilities and Staff

Managing annual budgets represents an unusual challenge for community colleges as well. In terms of total square footage, Solochek’s department manages about 70 percent of the space managed by neighboring Arizona State University (ASU). But the Maricopa space is distributed across 10 far-flung campuses, while ASU’s facilities are largely centralized in Phoenix.

"This requires us to limit staffing at individual campuses to minimum levels," Solochek says. "Each campus has a building and grounds director. At larger campuses, the director manages a small staff that includes two or three HVAC system operators. But at smaller campuses, a building and grounds director and a single helper may have to manage the entire facility, making decisions about when and how to contract out for maintenance and renovation work."

Some years ago, Maricopa moved to a decentralized management scheme that allows each campus administration to operate independently within a general framework. That works well educationally but, in terms of facility management, each campus grounds director must allocate small budgets and manage small staffs, relying on the central facility department only for advice.

Unlike ASU, the Maricopa system operates 10 campuses with many identical facilities. Instead of a central complex of administrative buildings, Maricopa has administrative facilities at each of 10 campuses. Instead of one central utility plant, Maricopa has 10. Instead of 20 chemistry laboratories, Maricopa has 50.

While ASU must perform maintenance on facilities used approximately 50 percent of the time, Maricopa must maintain facilities with 90 percent and higher use rates. "We teach classes from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. five, six and sometimes seven days a week," Solochek says. "That’s because many of our students are employed full-time and can only attend classes at night and on weekends. Because we use our facilities more intensively, they age more quickly and require more new floors and more new paint."

Then, too, Maricopa’s facility people must manage and maintain unusual classroom facilities. The system maintains automotive technology shops, fully equipped with hydraulic lifts and modern computerized diagnostic devices, at three of its campuses. Five campuses house Fire Science Centers with burn buildings, practice towers and specialized breathing equipment. Six campuses offer programs in the Administration of Justice, which require laser technology-based fire arms training systems.

One campus recently installed a fully equipped mortuary to support a Mortuary Sciences program. "On another campus, we have just installed a 10,000-square-foot commercial kitchen, where students learn about food service work," Solochek says. "The kitchen has $400,000 of state-of-the-art equipment, which will require regular maintenance."

These examples represent only the more unusual facility management tasks required by community colleges. Facility managers must also attend to the conventional tasks of managing classroom buildings, student centers, libraries, performing arts centers, athletic facilities and administrative buildings.

In short, managing facilities at community colleges involves all of the work required by a four-year institution and then some.

The future promises more facility management challenges for community colleges as well, as their educational approach and social role continue to evolve. "No one can predict, for example, what the effect and cost of virtual learning will be as more and more technology comes into the classroom," says Dr. Pierce of the AACC. "How will community colleges respond to these dramatic and powerful technical developments? Who will pay for these technologies? Will community colleges form new kinds of alliances with public and private organizations to acquire and manage technologies?

"I think that community colleges must also address changes that may arise in the roles played by all kinds of institutions of higher learning. For example, about half of the members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) now offer associate degrees to students. At the same time, several community colleges have begun to award four-year baccalaureate degrees. If this becomes a trend, some of the differences between two- and four-year institutions may begin to blur."

In short, community college facility managers have redefined their responsibilities to fit the emergence of new community college educational models during the 1990s. As these colleges continue to innovate, facility management challenges will continue to evolve.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in higher education issues.

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