Colleges Open in Closed US Bases
Technical schools convert abandoned military bases into effective job training programs
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.