CRYSTAL LAKE – McHenry County College officials envision a major expansion that could reshape the county’s educational landscape, train generations of skilled workers for the region’s largest industries, and strengthen the local economy.
It also could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The college’s 40-year expansion plan, unveiled in April, comes with a $640 million price tag. That includes $278.5 million in the next decade. Figuring out how to foot that bill is just one of the challenges for the college.
As the institution aims to grow and reinvent itself, MCC officials face a changing marketplace in which more and more college classes are taught via the Internet, pressure from the White House to increase the number of college graduates, and lingering questions from the public about the path they have charted for the future.
Over the next three days, the Northwest Herald examines the scholastic priorities behind the proposed expansion, student enrollment projections the college used to make the case for new campus facilities, how the college plans to fund these projects, and the ways McHenry County could benefit from the expansion.
McHenry County College’s proposed 10-year, $278.5 million campus expansion would make room for the school to offer more education programs.
MCC administrators want to develop new programs in health care, public safety, emerging technologies and manufacturing. They would offer the kinds of career and technical training that the county’s major employers require.
However, the college’s Crystal Lake campus doesn’t have room for new programs, said Tony Miksa, vice president of academic and student affairs at MCC.
To get around this, the college has offered some manufacturing and culinary management programs at local high schools in recent years. But plans for other programs have stalled.
MCC has put programs for respiratory therapists, physical therapist aides and assistants, and veterinary technicians on hold for a lack of space, according to the college’s 2011-15 Educational Master Plan. The plan is the main driver behind MCC’s proposed expansion.
“We don’t have enough space right now,” board Chairwoman Mary Miller said.
MCC has the equivalent of 4,100 full-time students in 398,000 gross square feet of building space. That’s about 97 gross square feet per student, less than some other community colleges in the region. Harper College in Palatine has 134 gross square feet per student, College of DuPage has 115, Moraine Valley Community College has 85, Elgin Community College has 131, and College of Lake County has 169, according to MCC’s facilities master plan.
Gross square feet refers to the total amount of space inside a building, including hallways and common areas. It’s not a measurement of usable space.
Wight and Co., a Darien-based architecture firm, has recommended MCC plan for between 120 and 125 gross square feet per student as it grows. By that recommendation, the college already needs an additional 94,000 square feet. College officials have used the firm’s recommendation to justify the expansion campaign.
MCC administrators point to a lack of space all over campus.
Students training to be emergency medical technicians have to practice with head splints and gurneys in the hallways of Building E because they don’t have enough classroom space, said Jim Falco, executive dean of education and career and technical education.
In 2010, administrators had to change class schedules to make sure there would be enough parking spaces during peak hours, Miksa said.
Students aren’t always able to find a quiet spot to study, said MCC sociology instructor Justin Hoy. Not having enough classrooms is a problem for students, who might not get into the courses they need.
“Another concern that faculty have noted is the lack of appropriate classroom spaces for our most in-demand programs,” said Hoy, who is co-president of McHenry County College Faculty Association. “Working with outdated technologies or a classroom that does not appropriately meet students’ academic needs can pose a challenge for everyone.”
The college’s 32 student organizations share a single room, which makes scheduling meeting times difficult. The college also doesn’t have a large enough space for graduation ceremonies. To accommodate family and friends, the college has to use two separate rooms, said Juletta Patrick, assistant vice president of academic and student affairs.
Those problems may seem petty compared with not having enough space to train EMTs, but Patrick said student organizations and other campus activities help boost student achievement by keeping students engaged.
“When they are engaged, they are successful,” Patrick said.
Community colleges across the country face similar problems, said Mark Schneider, an expert on post-secondary education and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
“A lot of community colleges have no space left,” he said.
But the fix isn’t always spending money to build buildings, Schneider said.
“They complain, they get a bond issue, and build gyms and climbing walls,” he said. “I’m not impressed. In my opinion, it’s the wrong way. Smart institutions need to figure out how to do blended courses.”
Blended courses mix online and in-person instruction.
ALTERNATIVES TO BUILDING
Community colleges must overcome this “edifice complex” to come up with creative solutions to deliver education to students cheaply and conveniently, Schneider said.
For example, community colleges have teamed with manufacturers to arrange for students to train with expensive machines at night or on weekends. And in response to student demand, many community colleges have made online and blended courses a top priority.
MCC offers some blended courses and plans to offer more in the future. However, additional building space is needed for a variety of student services, Miksa said.
“Online and blended courses are a big part of the future,” he said. “We’re doing those things here. You can’t just put online courses out there and expect students to be successful. There are services that need to be integrated into that to make that happen.”
Administrators also are exploring partnerships with local hospitals and manufacturers to prepare students for jobs here, Miksa said.
Even with the shift to online courses, community colleges aren’t ready to give up classrooms and laboratories, said Jeff Newell, director of distance education and education technology support for the Illinois Community College Board.
A nursing student can’t practice drawing blood on the Internet, he said.
“At some point, that person has to stick a needle in someone’s arm.”