Might the 32-year-long community college drought in D.C. finally be over? Last month, the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia voted to create the Community College of the University of the District of Columbia, putting D.C. on track to join every other major city in the United States as host to at least one two-year college.
In 1977, D.C.’s only two-year institution, Washington Technical Institute, was merged with the District’s Federal City College and Washington Teachers College to form UDC. This unprecedented act — deemed a mistake by then-mayor Marion Barry’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education in 1988, the Brookings Institution in 2008, and countless others in between — led to a decline in total students from 14,000 to around 6,000 today, as well as a decline in two-year programs.
This community college initiative reflects the vision of new UDC President Allen L. Sessoms, who came on board last fall and envisions UDC breaking up into a standalone community college and a four-year school offering programs up to the doctoral level.
“In a sense, with this new structure, we’re trying to return back to the way things were when the university was established in the mid-70s,” says Dr. Eurmon Hervey, former acting provost of UDC and now director of the community college initiative. “The idea is that the community college is a branch campus of the larger university where the two-year functions are housed.”
However, longtime faculty leader and one-time UDC Acting Provost Wilmer Johnson says the board shouldn’t just make the new community college “a part of UDC which it’s easier to do.”
“If we’re going to become a university, we should not be involved with the educational thrust of a community college — workforce development and all those things don’t work well in a university. It should stand alone, it should have legislation that creates it, gives it a budget, and its own facilities,” Johnson says. “It has to be a first-class operation or [students] won’t attend it anyway — it’ll be out of business in six or seven years,” he adds.
A troubled past
Given decades of mismanagement and mission confusion exacerbated by orders from Congress’ D.C. Financial Control Board to halve UDC’s operating budget in 1997 — the federal government still has authority over D.C.’s budget — Johnson says Sessoms’ efforts to create a new community college and doctoral programs will not be taken seriously if rushed.
“Sessoms wants to start Ph.D. programs overnight — nobody’s coming up there for a Ph.D. program. The city has never really looked at the university as a viable entity in the city, and that’s a shame,” Johnson says. “We can’t keep our facilities up. We don’t get the capital improvement money — nothing ever changes. And the reason some people don’t want it to change right now is because they want to do other kinds of development in that space” as the crumbling UDC campus sits on pricey Northwest D.C. real estate.
However, faculty members like Dr. Meredith Rode, chair of the Department of Mass Media, Visual & Performing Arts, say Sessoms’ urgency is warranted because, though many past presidents and board members talked about forming a community college, only Sessoms “took the initiative.”
“As the merger of the three institutions was unprecedented, the unweaving of that and doing what all the initial commissions had said is unprecedented,” Rode says. So Sessoms has “got a big job and jumped right on it, and I admire him. I’m hopeful, but there are a lot of toes that have been stepped on or are afraid of being stepped on,” she adds.
Though Sessoms’ plan calls for lowering tuition from $3,770 a year currently to $3,000 for students enrolled in the community college, tuition would go as high as $14,000 for students in the four-year school, sparking mass student protests.
“I’m the first person in my neighborhood, in my family to go to college, and my mom is barely struggling to keep the house under control to where she can pay rent,” says UDC sophomore psychology major Eric Vance.
“I don’t think anyone took into account that there are some students here struggling, they’re barely able to come. This is supposed to be an institution where kids who don’t have that $7,000, $8,000, $9,000 to go to some other university can come and still get a good education. I understand that they want to increase their image, but I just don’t feel like charging students more money makes your image look any better,” Vance adds.
For her part, UDC senior Fatou Sow, a biology major, says if UDC wants “to have a community college, I think that’s a great idea. I just transferred from a community college, Montgomery (Md.) College, and it’s an amazing school.”
According to Sow, Montgomery is “very nurturing and people care and want you to succeed. So if you want that in a smaller space for community college students, that’s fine. But, at the moment, I don’t find that it’s a good idea to add that to UDC because we already have our own problems to deal with,” Sow adds.
Nevertheless, Hervey says the needs of the District are so great that not only does UDC have to respond with forming a community college, but other colleges in the District should do the same.
“We believe that what we are doing complements the larger needs of the District of Columbia as it pertains to workforce development and education,” Hervey says. “The needs are so great that, if every institution that was located in the District of Columbia decided to figure out how it would reorganize to focus on the needs of the District, it would be a really good thing.”
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