Colleges Open in Closed US Bases

Technical schools convert abandoned military bases into effective job training programs

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

GLANCE across the campus of Texas State Technical College (TSTC) at Waco, and the landscape looks khaki. The college occupies the former James Connally Air Force Base, and it still seems like a place for basic training. From converted barracks to old mess halls, the campus is the color of faded army fatigues.

But amid the military buildings, there are signs of a school: a clock tower on an old industrial building, a new red-roofed classroom building, and TV satellite dishes on the student union.

The Texas State Technical College system, founded in 1965, occupies four abandoned military bases in Amarillo, Sweetwater, Harlingen, and Waco, Texas. It's typical of many such schools across the country.

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Patrick Sweeney, interim dean of engineering at the University of Dayton, surveyed 75 bases that were closed between 1961 and 1975. "It turned out that 33 of the 75 bases had been converted to colleges and vocational schools," he says. "Together, they enrolled 52,500 students."

Last year, when the United States Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended that an additional 34 facilities be shut down, many communities began studying the existing converted-base colleges.

To city planners, military bases may seem ideal candidates for campuses. They're already residential facilities, for one thing. Bases come with dormitories in the form of barracks and cafeterias in former mess halls, plus gyms and lecture halls.

Moreover, the bases offer room for expansion. Stanley Moses, assistant community development director for the city of Bangor, Maine, has watched a branch of the University of Maine arise from Dow Air Force Base at Bangor. The base closed in 1968.

"The campus at Bangor has an open and relaxed atmosphere with large lawns, tall pines, and plentiful parking," he says. "Plus, it's close to the services and amenities of the city. Orono, on the other hand [site of the main campus], is basically a small town with a large university."

With abundant land, some schools have burgeoned. In Toledo, Ohio, Owens Technical College was founded at Rossford Army Depot in 1964. Today, the campus has nine permanent buildings on 200 acres of land. The student body has grown from 200 to 9,544.

But the bases come with a price tag for maintenance.

Don Goodwin, president of Texas State Technical College at Waco, notes, "We spend $250,000 a year to maintain this campus: 900 buildings and 27 miles of roads. Last year, we tore down 30 buildings just to save the expense of upkeep.

"But demolition is costly, too. That's why it's taking so long to build a modern campus."

According to Dr. Sweeney, the key to successfully converting a military base is planning.

"Prior to the departure of the military," he says, "many communities were content to let their economic futures rest with their military installation. Often the economic development plan developed by civic officials and the Department of Defense was the first plan of its type in the community."

The best plan, Sweeney says, is "multiple uses of the facility - some combination of education, aviation, light industry - for specific, local needs."

Texas State Technical College at Waco focuses its efforts on training a new labor force. "We have a work force crisis in Texas," says Mr.Goodwin. "We face a dichotomy of futures. On the one hand, Texas has one of the youngest populations in the nation. That's promising.

"But we have serious problems with illiteracy and low technical skills. If current trends continue, our young Texans will grow up to spend their lives in low-end service jobs," he says. "With the right kind of education, however, we could conquer our literacy deficiencies and be technologically competitive."

The college at Waco has invested heavily in technical equipment, while taking its time renovating the campus. It offers three dozen training programs in five high-tech fields, ranging from aerospace to computer-integrated manufacturing.

"We've increased the number of computers on campus tenfold in the past three years," says Goodwin. "There's $40 million worth of laser equipment. One corporate donor provided a $500,000 scanning microscope for $200."

In the manufacturing technology department, a three-room laboratory contains $8 million worth of equipment - all of it donated by a Texas electronics firm that hires TSTC graduates.

According to Goodwin, "Job placement averages 86 percent. Last year, the average graduate from the Waco campus earned $27,000. Two highly skilled graduates in environmental science took jobs at $72,000 [each]."

The figures are exceptional for a two-year college that is open to any Texas high school graduate. Currently, 34 percent of entering freshmen graduate. The degree-completion rate for other two-year colleges in Texas is 5 percent.

Goodwin acknowledges that some of the college's success in placing graduates is due to the presence of federal government research in Texas. SEMATECH, a consortium of 18 semiconductor manufacturers, hires 70 percent of its technicians from TSTC at Waco. MCC - the Microelectronic and Computer Technology Corporation - is another major employer. And the federal Superconductor Supercollider is slated for construction near Waxahachie, on the road north to Dallas.

But he also believes his school has found a new market niche in education. Goodwin feels that American industry is creating an entirely new class of workers: "technoprofessionals."

"We're finding a growing shortage of technicians," Goodwin observes. "But not the kinds of people we used to think of as technicians.

"We've always viewed manufacturing work environments as hot and dirty sweatshops. The reality is that most workplaces for today's technicians are hygienically pure and environmentally controlled. And, as we've seen, good technical jobs pay well.

"But the new jobs for technicians require advanced skills. College algebra, calculus, physics, and chemistry are common requirements in many of our programs."

One of the most promising fields for TSTC technicians is aeronautics. Like a number of other schools on converted bases, the college has used its airstrip to recruit aviation firms. Elsinore Airframe, Chrysler Technologies, and McDonnell Douglas have built plants at the edge of the runways, next to the campus. Together, the companies employ 5,000 workers. Eighteen percent of students at the Waco campus are majoring in aeronautics.

The college has joined Waco's economic development agency to create an industrial park on the far side of the runways. The aim is to attract other employers to an aging Southern city where half the downtown stores stand vacant.

Aviation is a popular curriculum for communities concerned with economic development. According to Michael Kurth, an economist at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., "Jobs for licensed aviation mechanics and technicians are expected to increase 5 percent annually over the next decade: a total of 46,000 new jobs."

BUT training young people for those jobs requires more than a vacant military airfield. In New Iberia, La., civic officials spent two years planning an aviation maintenance institute, only to find that many local high school graduates were too weak in mathematics to study the subject. When they finally launched the institute, they also opened a branch of National Education Centers, a school based in Irvine, Calif., that specializes in remedial courses.

In Waco, Goodwin acknowledges that converting military bases to high-tech education programs doesn't happen overnight. But he believes the process is vitally important.

"We need technically sophisticated people who can produce quality goods at a competitive price," he says. "Without that, we face a future as a consumer nation, and one at the lower end of the economic chain. The quality of our work force is our future."

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