How will HCC evolve in the coming decade and the next fifty years?
ILLUSTRATION-RIGHT: DAN BEJAR
A key part of Howard Community College’s success over the past 50 years has stemmed from the institution’s ability to think and plan ahead. While the college celebrates half a century of helping students achieve on their pathways to success, its top leaders are actively contemplating what the next 50 years will bring — and preparing for both challenges and opportunities. We sat down (virtually) with Dr. Kate Hetherington, president, and Felícita Solá-Carter, chair of the board of trustees, to hear their thoughts on HCC’s landmark anniversary and their vision for the future.
What are your personal reflections as HCC marks its 50th anniversary?
Ms. Solá-Carter: Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia, had a quote that I’ve always loved where he describes his vision for the community as “a garden for growing people.” I think of the college as a garden too, not only
because it has beautiful grounds and offers award winning experiences with nature, but more importantly because it is a garden for growing the minds, health, and lives of residents in the county and beyond. It is incredible to see how a small idea can germinate and develop over time into a full-grown blooming garden. As a gardener at home, I also know that a well-tended garden requires a bit of pruning and maintenance. Similarly, as we pursue the vision for the college and see it blossom, we should also trim and shape it over time so that it continues to flourish.
Personally, I’ve had the privilege to engage with the college in a number of ways. My older son took courses at HCC; my husband taught here for 10 years; in my former role with the community group Conexiones, I was able to work with the college leadership on supporting Hispanic student education outcomes. These experiences made me so excited about the
possibilities at HCC, and I am honored now to serve on the board of trustees.
Dr. Hetherington: In the 21 years I’ve worked at the college, I have had the opportunity to see many changes at HCC, from the growth of enrollment to the transformation of the campus. But what has always remained consistent is our mission – making sure students are successful and able to obtain their goals. That has not wavered. When I first arrived here, I was impressed by the culture and how everything we do at the college is focused on student success. If anything, I think that culture has become even stronger over the years. In the future, I am looking forward to continuing to build on that mission as Howard County’s college. I expect we will continue to respond to the needs of the workforce, students, and our community, and to approach things in an innovative and creative way as we always have done.
In what ways has HCC changed and grown since its opening in 1970?
Dr. Hetherington: In addition to our student population’s exponential growth over the years and physical changes to the campus, HCC significantly expanded its academic programs to over 200 at one point. More recently, we have scaled back some of those programs to better meet the core needs of students whether they are seeking to transfer to a four-year university, complete a workforce degree, or obtain a certificate.
In 1970, our college included veterans returning from the war, moms returning to the workforce, and racially diverse students. We continue to see the diversity of our student body as a strength of HCC today. Also, the diversity of our faculty and staff now increasingly reflects that of our student population.
One area where we have expanded our efforts is in building support for smaller cohorts of students, with programs like Career Links for single parents, Howard P.R.I.D.E. for Black male students, and Ambiciones for Hispanic/Latinx students. We also offer support for students with disabilities and honors programs. We are always focused on how we can better meet the needs of all our students.
What are some trends you are seeing now that will likely impact the future?
Ms. Solá-Carter: Technological changes are a big one. We were fortunate to have been ahead of the pack with virtual learning when the pandemic shifted operations online. But technology is constantly changing, and that can pose both new possibilities and challenges. We know we must have a flexible mindset so that we can determine how best to use technology and how to continue to pay for it.
In terms of the economy, it’s uncertain how recovery or the job market will look following the pandemic. It’s a shifting landscape, but we try to stay ahead of it while continuing to provide the best education to current students.
Dr. Hetherington: Despite changes in the job market and available opportunities, we want our students to receive a good grounding in general education. That will give them a solid foundation and necessary skills to help them succeed in any job they choose. We are also very responsive to where we see needs in the workforce, whether it’s in health care, cybersecurity, or construction management. Our recent growth of apprenticeship programs, such as the ones in IT with AT&T, is evidence of that. We will continue to adapt to meet those needs and prepare our students for their next jobs.
How has HCC’s response to the pandemic changed life on campus and will these changes continue?
Dr. Hetherington: Our staff and faculty skillfully undertook a rapid transition to remote learning and services in the spring. It helped that we have been offering online learning for over 20 years, so for many faculty the adjustment was not new. We are continuing to offer intensive training to help faculty teach remotely and online, and we are also learning that some services are working really well in a virtual format, such as telecounseling. Counselors have found that students prefer remote counseling services because it is more private, saves time and money on transportation, and is easily accessible. So this may become a more permanent option for students.
What are some of the challenges facing the college looking forward?
Ms. Solá-Carter: Funding is a tremendous challenge, especially as we rely on full-time enrollment as a major source of funds. While enrollment went well in the summer, we are examining the current numbers every day. State funding has dropped by $3.3 million, and grants are starting to dry up. We know we’re not the only ones facing these challenges – every community college in Maryland is facing similar uncertainty, and we are advocating together for more resources. But this situation requires us to carefully examine every aspect of what we do and prioritize our programs and work that are most crucial to meeting the core needs of our students.
Dr. Hetherington: We are also seeing demographic changes in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, with a shrinking high school population in the coming years. This means we will need to recruit and compete alongside four-year colleges for a smaller pool of students, which could further affect our enrollment and funding. We hope that we will continue to attract more adult learners who want to retool and retrain for jobs, and we will need to continue to look for opportunities to provide the best value to students.
Accessibility and affordability are key to who we are as a community college. So our board is very careful to do everything it can to keep tuition affordable and our staff will continue to connect students to financial aid from a variety of sources, including the HCC Educational Foundation.
In what ways do you hope the college will stay the same in the next 50 years?
Ms. Solá-Carter: I hope HCC will continue to be the pride of the county. We are very much a community college, serving as a high-quality institution for higher education for all residents as well as a source of continuous growth and evolution for all that happens in the county.
Dr. Hetherington: I hope the mission of the college will continue to focus on student success. By staying true to this mission, the college will ensure it continues to have the greatest impact. I also hope the culture will stay the same. The people here are fully vested in the mission, and they care. When I first arrived on campus looking for the room where I was to have my job interview, I remember a staff member stopping to ask if I was lost. I was struck by his willingness to help me. Since then, I’ve seen many employees go out of their way to help others, whether to accompany students to rooms they were looking for, I’ve seen a cafeteria worker carry a food tray to help a disabled student, and I’ve seen so many people care in small ways. But all of those small ways add up to a very strong institution.
In what ways do you think the college might change?
Dr. Hetherington: While our campus is landlocked on 120 acres, we are planning for the opening of a new Math and Athletics complex in 2024 to replace their outdated facilities. This “fused facility” will bring significantly improved spaces for all of our students who are required to take math, as well as our athletes, and all at a more affordable price than if the buildings were constructed separately. It will be breathtaking.
We may also see more changes to academic programs, such as a larger focus on entrepreneurship, more short-term workforce programs that help people land a job quickly or a bachelor’s degree program in nursing. There are many opportunities that could arise.
How has the role of community colleges evolved since 1970 and how do you see that changing in the next 50 years?
Dr. Hetherington: My entire career has been at community colleges, as a faculty member, administrator and, over the last 13 years, the college’s president. There are some things that have not changed – like how a community college meets the needs of its community. Community colleges are entrepreneurial, and they adapt to meet those needs. Community colleges are where people will be turning to going forward to help them adapt, grow and thrive. We have shown we are agile, can pivot and come out on top.
Ms. Solá-Carter: “Agile” is a perfect word to describe community colleges like HCC. Where others might see community problems or issues, we see opportunities. Our mindset is one of anticipating and delivering on the evolving needs of the community, without losing sight of our essential mission. I think we are very adept at doing that.
Let’s imagine the year is 2070, and HCC is celebrating its 100th anniversary. What do the headlines say?
Dr. Hetherington: “You Can Still Get There From Here.”
Ms. Solá-Carter: I would say the same! It’s that sense of possibility and ability to respond and deliver, whatever your goals are. That’s what makes HCC so exciting.