Keeping the Community in College

New FCC President Eyes Affordability Amid Rising Costs and Student Debt

By Kate Poindexter | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 06.06.15 – Lifestyles

Elizabeth Burmaster has come home. Her personal and professional journey started here in Frederick County. Now, the new president of Frederick Community College has returned to her hometown with a mission and a message: Public higher education can change lives and communities, but only if it is accessible and affordable.

“Access to affordable, quality higher education empowers people to have the knowledge and skills to be productive citizens,” she says. One of her main goals at FCC is to keep costs down while continuing to bring cutting-edge learning opportunities to students so that they can fulfill their dreams and contribute to the workforce and the community. Affordability is quite a challenge, as state education budgets are tight, but Burmaster says she is hopeful that new sources of revenue can be tapped.

FCC Board of Trustees Chairwoman Debra Borden shares that hope and is confident that Burmaster is the instrument of change the college needs to advance the goals of students and the workforce. The trustees have tasked Burmaster with evaluating and overhauling FCC’s organizational structure, enrollment strategies, budget and strategic plan, and reinforcing the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In addition, Borden says Burmaster is leveraging her hometown community connections, reaching out to old friends, teachers, colleagues and classmates to bolster the college’s coffers and enhance learning opportunities. Burmaster’s network is considerable. “I feel like we hired Kevin Bacon—six degrees of separation,” Borden says.

Don’t call her doctor or any other honorific, just call her Libby. Burmaster points out that while she holds honorary doctorates from Edgewood College and Beloit College in Wisconsin, she interrupted her own doctoral program to run for statewide public office in Wisconsin. She won the election and served two terms as Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state agency that advocates for public education and libraries, from 2001 to 2009. She was president of Nicolet College in Wisconsin from 2009 until taking up the helm at FCC last August.

A graduate of Gov. Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, she earned a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in music with honors in music education. But teaching and promoting higher learning come naturally to her; there are four generations of teachers in her family and she has served as a teacher and principal in public school systems for most of her career. As a principal of a 2,000-student urban high school, she led curriculum, behavioral and teaching reforms. She also served on the Wisconsin Technical College System Board and the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board and the Wisconsin Higher Education Aids Board.

“Public education is the great equalizer to what we can be as a society,” she says. “I had been taught by wonderful teachers in Frederick when things were really polarized [in the 1960s and ‘70s]. I was prepared to go into diverse ethnic schools in Wisconsin. This guided and informed my passion for public education.”

When Burmaster started her job at FCC, one of the first orders of business was preparing the budget. She employed a unique tactic, asking department heads to ignore past allocations and expenditures and begin the fiscal planning process at zero. This encouraged staff to really look at programs from the ground up and enabled them to evaluate what is essential, what is working and even what could be put aside.

Noting that student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in the nation, Burmaster says she is attempting to keep tuition costs as low as possible while providing new and challenging classroom and online course offerings that meet students where they are—whether that is in a classroom or online. In 2014, FCC was operating on a $48.1 million budget with 101 full time faculty, 461 part-time or adjunct faculty and 502 non-faculty staff. The proposed budget for 2016 is $49.1 million.

“I am very impressed that she has taken the time to understand FCC, the great work that goes on there and the community that FCC supports, and supports FCC.”

Burmaster says the college will be increasingly relying on grants and the Frederick Community College Foundation to assist students with tuition and other costs. The foundation is a not-for-profit organization that builds relationships to foster financial and community support for the college. It provides scholarships for eligible students. George Littrell III, who currently chairs the foundation’s board of directors, says he is working closely with Burmaster to raise funds and improve the college overall. “I am very impressed that she has taken the time to understand FCC, the great work that goes on there and the community that FCC supports, and supports FCC. Her collaborative approach has created a great working atmosphere for the college community to assess the future direction of FCC and have a strong team to move the institution forward.”

Whether working with the Board of Trustees, the foundation or her many connections in the community, Burmaster keeps a close watch on the affordability and accessibility of the college’s offerings. When asked about President Obama’s America’s College Promise, a recent proposal to waive tuition costs for many students attending community college, Burmaster nodded. She is open to the idea of exploring all avenues of increasing access to higher education. While the details and costs of Obama’s proposal have not been ironed out, it is based on a program launched in Tennessee last summer. “You have to decide as a society what you are going to invest in. That’s what government does. I believe that education has the best return on investment,” she said.

Numbers and budgets aside, Burmaster says education provides opportunity and security like nothing else. Keeping it within reach for everyone is her goal. “Right now, the community college is the great hope for society. Public education, post-secondary is going to be the great instrument for the future.”