Most Washington County residents have not obtained four-year college degrees, an educational gap that could hamper redevelopment efforts, according to an economic development strategic plan.
“Washington County is at the lower end of the educational attainment spectrum in terms of percentages of its residents 25 years of age and older having four-year college degrees and graduate and professional degrees,” says the report, compiled by Urbanomics Inc. on behalf of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission and the county Industrial Foundation, or CHIEF.
“This may be explained by the county’s ‘blue-collar’ roots and also by the growing low-income populations attracted to the Hagerstown area by a concentration of social-service agencies and organizations and correctional facilities,” the report said.
Low educational attainment, the report said, poses “a daunting challenge to both educators and economic developers” seeking to raise those levels and make the county a viable location for high-wage employers.
While the county’s high school graduation rate of 84 percent is comparable to Maryland’s statewide rate of 88 percent, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 36 percent of Marylanders older than 25 have graduate and postgraduate degrees, compared to 19 percent in Washington County.
Nationwide, more than 30 percent of Americans older than 25 had at least a bachelor’s degree, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2012.
The reason for Washington County’s lower numbers might be as much geographical as educational, said Theresa Shank, dean of continuing education at Hagerstown Community College.
Much of Maryland’s population is concentrated in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area, where federal and state government agencies are clustered, along with research and medical facilities that require employees to have graduate and postgraduate degrees, she said.
Even before the economic development plan was released in January, education, including post-secondary education, was identified as an area for improvement by the Strategic Community Impact Plan, or SCIP, which was made public in November 2011.
Initiated by United Way of Washington County and the Community Foundation of Washington County, and carried out by more than 200 volunteers over two years, SCIP is a long-range, strategic plan to improve the quality of life in Washington County. It includes 44 goals in 11 focus areas, and strategies for each.
The plan, which says that in the next decade, nearly eight in 10 job openings in the U.S. will require post-secondary education or training, lists nine education-related goals — more than for any other focus area.
The SCIP plan set a goal to increase the high school graduation rate by 1 percent each year, with a long-term vision of 100 percent, and to have at least 75 percent of high school graduates enroll in full-time, post-secondary educational opportunities.
The plan also calls for increasing, within five years, the percentage of adults with associate and bachelor’s degrees to meet or exceed the percentage in Maryland as measured by census indicators.
Working to change the numbers
HCC and Washington County Public Schools have programs in place to encourage more people to seek a college education, said Gerald Haines, HCC’s director of instruction.
In 2010, the college received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to increase retention and graduation of “first-generation college students, low-income students and students with documented disabilities, who demonstrate academic need.”
Haines described first-generation college students as people from families that do not have members with a college background.
Qualified students receive tutoring, counseling, financial training and assistance in determining career and academic goals “with an emphasis on transfer to a four-year college,” HCC said at the time the grant was received.
Last year, HCC received another $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to work in partnership with Washington County Public Schools, with the goal of increasing college attendance.
The program is aimed at improving academic skills and encouraging college and career exploration in younger high school students, and college readiness, especially in math and English, among older students, HCC said at the time.
High academic achievers in the public school system may take advantage of the Early Support for Students to Enter College Education, or ESSENCE, program at HCC. Qualified students can take courses at the college or in dual-enrollment classes offered at area high schools that award high school and college credits. County high school students get a 50 percent discount on regular in-county tuition rates, Haines said.
Kaplan University in Hagerstown also has a number of agreements with Washington County Public Schools that allow some career and technology education credits earned in high school to be transferred to the college, said Christopher Motz, Kaplan’s president of Maryland campuses.
HCC and the school system have been working to develop a “middle college,” but Shank said there are a lot of details to work out.
A middle college would be a high school program at the HCC campus offering high school and college courses with a focus on science, technology, engineering, math and medical careers, according to the strategic plan.
For adult and continuing-education students, HCC has expanded its online offerings, as well as evening and weekend classes, to make it more convenient for people who are trying to complete their educations, Shank said.
In September, the Greater Hagerstown Committee Education Forum discussed the idea of Washington County paying for high school graduates to attend HCC. Shank said nothing new has developed on that proposal.
The economic development plan also suggested the county explore establishing a four-year university, along with student housing.
State Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said having the combination of HCC and the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown serves as a four-year college for some students. Hagerstown Community College offers two-year degrees and course work for which the credits are transferable to USMH for many programs, he said.
USMH offers graduate and postgraduate degrees from Frostburg University, University of Maryland College, Towson University, Salisbury University and the University of Maryland College Park at its campus in downtown Hagerstown.
While HCC has no plans to become a four-year institution, it did enter into a “3 + 1” agreement with Drexel University that allows nursing students with associate degrees to take an additional 10 courses at HCC that can be applied toward a Bachelor of Science in nursing at Drexel.
With a 25 percent discount on tuition, it is a cost-effective method for nursing students to complete the third year of the program before finishing at Drexel, Shank said.
Kaplan University offers four-year degrees, as well as master’s and associate degrees, Motz said.
“We offer 32 bachelor’s degree programs you can enroll in through the Hagerstown campus. Many of those are online only,” Motz said.
The dozen master’s degree programs also are offered online, he said.
“I think we’d be a long way off” from a four-year university, Myers said, but he agreed with a proposal to the city from Sora Development of Towson, Md., that student housing near the campus would be beneficial.
Representatives of Sora came to Hagerstown in January to discuss with city officials the possibility of a public-private partnership to come up with a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the downtown.
Student housing would bring much-needed economic activity to the downtown, along with providing housing for students who otherwise might face long commutes to school, Myers said.
“We have a full-service dormitory here that is underutilized,” Motz said of Kaplan.
It is currently at about one-third of its 36-student capacity, could be expanded and is on the bus line, he said.
Kaplan would be willing to work with other institutions that have a need for student housing.
“I think it’s something worth considering and planning for,” Del. Andrew A. Serafini said of student housing. “Dormitories would make a big difference.”
Student housing would help draw in students from outside the area, even from outside the country, said Serafini, R-Washington.
As the population ages, the people needed to fill the workforce will, in many cases, come from other countries, he said.
In the broader view of education and workforce development needs, the comparatively low percentages of Washington County residents having bachelor’s or graduate degrees is a cause for concern, particularly in attracting knowledge-based and technology-oriented businesses and professionals, according to information in the Economic Development Strategic Plan for Hagerstown and Washington County.
The report listed the following proposed actions related to education:
• Conduct meetings with affected and interested parties, including the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, Hagerstown Community College, University System of Maryland at Hagerstown and Kaplan University to discuss educational needs, political realities, opportunities and potential strategies for expanding higher education in Hagerstown-Washington County.
• Expand, coordinate and effectively market on-site and online continuing-education programs at Hagerstown Community College, University System of Maryland at Hagerstown and Kaplan University leading to bachelor’s and advanced degrees.
• Assess needs and opportunities and develop a strategy and action plan to elevate the identity and presence of University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, with the goal of becoming a full self-contained, four-year public university in Washington County. Expand course offerings and provide student housing opportunities and other amenities downtown to support an expanded presence.
The EDC, in cooperation with the Washington County Board of Commissioners and Hagerstown’s mayor and city council, should join forces to promote the concept and provide a united front in pursuit of conceptual and financial support from the governor, the Maryland General Assembly and Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of stories on findings and recommendations in the Hagerstown and Washington County Economic Development Strategic Plan.
What ran Sunday: Workforce development