By Mike Lewis
Like business leaders, college presidents, deans and professors are on the lookout for the next big thing.
Proof comes in a sampling of recent headlines:
• The University of Maryland is launching the nation’s first master’s degree program in medical cannabis science and therapeutics.
• Allegany College of Maryland is beginning a medical scribe specialist certificate program.
• Frostburg State University has started a new physician assistant program, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore has launched a hospitality and tourism management program, both at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.
• Hagerstown Community College is beginning a diesel technician certificate program.
Some news from HCC and Frostburg provide something of a case study on the point.
‘It’s the long game’
HCC President Jim Klauber has been in the post for little more than a year. He said he has been meeting not only with students and faculty, but also with area business and civic leaders to make sure the college is aligning its courses to the community’s needs.
One casualty of that effort was a two-year degree program to train people as pharmacy techs.
“We closed that program not too long after we got here,” he said. “We had very, very low enrollment — less than six people in the program.”
The bottom line, he said, is that businesses already offer employees that training.
“You don’t need to come to the college to get your certificate and get that job,” he said.
When a business cuts a product, it can put resources to more promising work, Klauber said. He’s planning to do that at HCC.
“I’m continuing to do research” on potential replacements, he said. And those have business considerations, too.
For example, he said, there is a demand for medical lab or surgery technicians. But those can be expensive programs to start.
There’s also demand for physical therapy technicians, “but there are six (programs) within 50 miles of here,” he said.
The college also is weighing whether to expand its popular and successful dental hygienist program, which can accept 18 students at a time.
“It’s highly competitive. Do we want to hire additional faculty and double the size of the program? … We have people who come from all over the state to get into that program,” he said.
As in the business world, decisions like that aren’t made in vacuums. The appropriate organizations have to accredit the programs. Some are more difficult to launch than others. In the case of some programs in the health industry, he said, it can take years to get something up and running.
The college has a host of ways to get input from community members, from its board of directors to advisory boards that work with each subject area. The college is required to keep records of those advisory board meetings.
“It’s like that with community colleges all across the country,” he said.
He pointed to the fledgling diesel tech program as an example. Among other things, the college conducted a survey of potential employers to determine need and interest. The program is not on the academic side, which leads to a degree, but it is being started on the workforce development side, which can lead to a certificate.
“We’re hoping that will be a popular program,” he said.
Many people who pick up certifications return to the college for further training or to earn an associate degree, Klauber said.
“It’s the long game, I’m telling you,” he said. “The college will benefit from that.”
‘It’s pretty amazing’
Beth Smolko also said she’s playing a long game. She’s the director of the new physician assistant program that Frostburg State University is offering at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.
But the push for the program started long before she was hired.
Western Maryland is what the health experts call a “medically underserved” region, with too few providers for the population. Frostburg is looking to improve those numbers with the physician assistant program.
Like a business considering a complicated product, the university started doing its homework years ago.
“It actually took six years, almost seven, to bring it to fruition,” she said.
Smolko said university officials “took it as far as they could” before making the commitment to hire a director.
“They had already done the feasibility study for the program and determined there was a lot of community support for the program,” Smolko said.
She said a consultant who had worked with the university on the program ran into her at a conference and recommended that she look into it.
“He also knew I had a passion for the medically underserved. … I looked it over and thought, ‘Oh, shoot, I do have to apply for this,’” she said.
She started two years ago, in August.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Smolko said, even though the first year was “very difficult.”
While she had experience in administering programs and was confident in her abilities, she said she hadn’t worked with academics in this kind of role. She also had a ton of work to do, including developing coursework to writing syllabi, setting job descriptions, making plans for assessments and checking all of the boxes for the necessary accreditations.
The accreditation process for physician assistant programs is “unique and extremely rigorous,” she said. The application for accreditation and the supporting documents alone ran “somewhere between 700 and 800 pages long.”
“The whole time, we’re accepting students during the process,” she said.
Finally, a person from the accrediting organization came for a site visit. Officials from Meritus Health and the Western Maryland Health System turned out in force to show their support.
When the accreditor said she was impressed with the community’s backing, “We knew we had done OK,” Smolko said.
The program also is doing OK in terms of initial numbers.
The university can accept 25 students per year into the two-year program.
For the first class, she said, the university received more than 400 applications.
For the second class, the university received nearly 500 applications just in the first six weeks. Smolko said the total number might exceed 1,000.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she said.