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Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio
Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

Let’s take another look at Dayton, Ohio. For context, here is a report on how the city has dealt with the loss of major industries over the decades, and with the mass shootings in its nightlife-and-cultural Oregon District this past summer. And here is a report on how the University of Dayton—a large, private, Catholic university located a few miles from downtown—is reconceiving its mission to emphasize revival of the community as a whole.

Today’s subject is another major part of the local higher-ed equation, Sinclair Community College. Sinclair is very large as community colleges go, with an enrollment of about 28,000 students per year in college-credit courses, and another 12,000 in other programs.

It also has a very long history. It was founded in the late 1880s, growing from vocational-training programs that a young Scottish immigrant named David Sinclair had established at the local YMCA. The main clientele was factory workers, many of them immigrants, who were pouring into this part of Ohio (as with other midwestern cities) during its industrial-age boom. The original Sinclair’s ambition was to provide specific technical training and general “Americanization” courses in civics and language.

“Many community colleges around the country are celebrating their 50th or 60th anniversaries now, because they were part of the big post-World War II educational expansion,” Steven L. Johnson, who has been president of Sinclair since 2003, told me in Dayton last month. “We’re into our 133rd year.” He said that while some institutions might have predated what David Sinclair and his contemporaries set up in Dayton, today’s Sinclair Community College appears to have the longest history of continuous operation among all U.S. community colleges.

David Sinclair (center, in black suit), namesake of Sinclair Community College, in the late 1880s. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

In dispatches from around the country, Deb Fallows and I have argued that community colleges are the indispensable part of this era’s U.S. educational establishment. We’ve seen and described this in Mississippi, and in rural post-tobacco Virginia, and across Michigan, and many places beyond. I still believe what I argued about community colleges earlier in this journey:

While every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:

  1. They’re local- or state-based, and thus far freer to experiment, adapt, and innovate than most federally run institutions are at this moment of paralyzed national politics.
  2. They’re more and more the institutions that feel responsible for matching people who need opportunities with the fastest-growing opportunities of this era. (For instance, in much of the country there have been more openings than candidates for relatively high-wage “skilled trade” jobs: from welding and construction, to engine and robotics maintenance, to many aspects of the ever-expanding health-care industry. Many community colleges emphasize preparing graduates for jobs that are in demand right now, while also developing skills and adaptable-learning techniques that will apply for whatever jobs emerge a decade from now.)
  3. Because they’re often dispersed across a state, with branches in smaller cities and rural areas, many of them have taken a lead in devising region-wide and rurally focused development plans. Most everyone knows that America outside the big cities faces its own set of challenges, from attracting new residents to creating new economic strongholds to dealing with physical and mental-health problems. The people working hardest toward solutions, at least among those I’ve met, are disproportionately at community colleges.

Sinclair students in a machine-tool workshop. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

What makes Sinclair unusual and worth notice, apart from its long history? I was struck by three aspects.

  • First is the sheer scale of its impact on the community. According to Sinclair officials, at least half of all Dayton-area residents have taken classes there at some point.
  • Second is the way it is trying to broaden access to its programs—to groups ranging from high school students to people in correctional institutions.
  • Third is its integration and cooperation with other parts of the region’s educational and economic structure. You don’t always see research universities and community colleges working together; in Dayton they appear to be doing so.

First, the scale. When I met Steven Johnson and Adam Murka, his chief of staff, on Sinclair’s campus, I asked about their claim that half of Dayton-area residents had taken classes there. How could this possibly be true?

“Let’s do the numbers,” Johnson said, all of which highlighted the fact that Sinclair is a very large institution in a medium-sized town.

The city of Dayton itself has just under 150,000 people. Depending on how you count, the surrounding metro area totals somewhere between 700,000 and one million. Beyond the tens of thousands of students Sinclair enrolls each year, it employs about 3,000 people. Spurred in part by an Ohio program that encourages high-school students to take local college courses, nearly 8,000 Dayton-area high-school students take classes for credit at Sinclair before they graduate from high school. When the local economy goes down, as it did dramatically after the 2008 financial collapse, Sinclair’s enrollment goes up further still, and people who have lost jobs re-train in hopes of finding new ones.

Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College since 2003 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

“We know that if you add it up, every decade we’re educating about 125,000 different people in the area,” Johnson said. “Over time, it means that we’ve directly touched the lives of about half the people within an hour’s drive of here.”

I asked Johnson and Murka if they knew of other community college with proportionately as large a regional impact. “We wouldn’t know about all of them, but I’m not aware of any,” Murka said. Johnson, who has been an administrator at colleges in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, said that in his experience, “this footprint is unique.”

We met in the college’s Building 12, its main administration building, which includes large meeting spaces. “It’s not a joke; everyone in the community has been here at some point,” Johnson said. “Every gala, every civic event, every big gathering has happened here. We are just part of this place.”

Like many other community colleges, Sinclair has offers programs in health care, and law enforcement. “Whenever you hear a siren in the Miami Valley, there’s an 80 percent probability that someone in that emergency vehicle—fire, police, paramedic—is Sinclair trained,” Johnson said.

The scale of the Sinclair commencement ceremony, held at the University of Dayton Arena (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

Second, the ambition to broaden and include. For residents of Montgomery County, of which Dayton is the county seat, Sinclair tuition is now $3,500 per year, which the college says is the lowest in Ohio. Over the past dozen years, the number of students completing a degree or certificate has gone up more than five-fold—low completion rates being one of the long-standing failures of America’s community colleges. In 2005, about 1,500 Sinclair students completed their degrees or certificates. Last year, more than 8,000 did. The number of degrees and certificates completed by minority students has also risen sharply. (From just over 500 in 2012, to nearly 2,000 last year.)

The broadening strategy that most got my attention was Sinclair’s “Prison Education Program,” to offer people still in correctional institutions courses that lead to certificates or associate degrees. “We have all this human talent—latent talent—now incarcerated,” Johnson said. “What they need is not random ‘enrichment’ courses, but a pathway, to something specific.” The courses lead to certificates and degrees in food-services, addiction counseling, social work, agriculture and forestry, supply-chain management, and other fields. About 2,000 incarcerated students are now enrolled, at 15 institutions across the state.

“This program is also unusual in its scale,” Adam Murka said. “Lots of states are involved in prison education, but I’m not aware of anybody doing as much as we are, toward credentials where people can actually get jobs.” He pointed out that people with felony records are barred from future employment in some fields, notably including teaching and medical care. “We’re concentrating on fields where they can find work.” According to Sinclair, recidivism rates have fallen dramatically among people who have completed these courses.

Third, collaboration between this community college and the area’s main research institution, the University of Dayton. Sinclair and UD are not the only important higher-ed organizations in the region—another important institution is Wright State University—but they have a long history of collaboration, as opposed to the arm’s-length, disdainful, or competitive attitude with which some four-year universities  view their community-college counterparts. For instance, since 2016 the two institutions have offered a program called the “UD Sinclair Academy.” Under this system students start at Sinclair, earn an associate degree there, and then transfer their courses for full class credit at the (much more expensive) University of Dayton.

There are many more aspects of the Sinclair story that I won’t go into here. The one that tempts me most: their advanced work in “Unmanned Aerial Systems,” or drones, including a very high-ceilinged “Indoor Flying Pavilion” (video here) where the little devices can fly and be tested and calibrated in all weather.

Opening of the Indoor Flying Pavilion, in 2015 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

Instead I’ll return to the question I earlier asked the leaders of the University of Dayton: how the rest of the country should think about the situation of Dayton, with all it has lost and all it is trying to regain.

Steven Johnson grew up as part of a large farming family in rural Wisconsin. Adam Murka is from the Dayton area and graduated from the University of Dayton — before working as an aide for the area’s Republican congressman (and former Dayton mayor), Michael Turner.

How does each of them think about Dayton now—and think it should be understood, by the rest of the country?

“Dayton is proud,” Steven Johnson said. “I like to say, having lived in Austin [where he went to graduate school, at the University of Texas], that Dayton was the Austin of the Industrial Age in America. It was the place in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. It was a booming place. People really didn’t see themselves in any way, shape, or form as ‘second class,’ compared to the very biggest cities. That consciousness remains.

“This is an extraordinarily competent place,” he said. “People here understand how to do things. And it’s a big enough place to have all the components of a city’s life—and small enough that it’s not siloed.”

Both he and Murka said that everyone in Dayton was aware of the larger “declining Rust Belt” image applied to the region as a whole, and the particular way Dayton’s opioid and factory-closing problems have dominated national-media attention on the town. “There’s this image, ‘Dayton was once great and booming, and now it’s just horrible,'” Johnson said. “It’s frustrating because I think, Would you look more closely at this region? There is a lot happening here. On average, the quality of life is very high. Of course I immediately have to stress on average, because of our obvious problems. But if you take me to Austin, in five minutes I can show you all its problems and contrasts too.”

About Dayton’s woebegone image, Adam Murka said, “Among Daytonians, and maybe everywhere in the Midwest, there is a very strong allergy to self-promotion.” Murka said that he had spent an earlier part of his career in Washington D.C., “where that allergy does not exist. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam,” he said, “It’s just—of course you promote yourselves! And here that just is not done. In Texas they might say, ‘It ain’t bragging if it’s true.’ Here that’s just not done.”

The upside of this taciturn midwestern approach, Murka said, “is this means it’s a great place to do business. If somebody makes you a promise, they’ve very likely to keep it. The downside is that people don’t know about all the promise you have.” He said that if he told a loyal New Yorker, “Man, your city must be a terrible place to live,” then “in the best case, they say ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ And in the worst case it degenerates quickly.” But tell a Daytonian about the city’s woes, and the reply is likely to be, “Yeah, we’ve had some hard times here …”

“I have seen more optimism in the last five years than in the past 15,” Steven Johnson said, about the developments in downtown Dayton and varied business and cultural startups. Adam Murka made a similar point in a different way.

“One of the nice things about having gone through catastrophic change, is that you have gone through it,” Adam Murka said“You know you can do it.

“We are a place that knows what it is. The smartest thinkers in the world say that the rate of change is going to increase exponentially. We know we will be able to adapt to those kinds of changes, because we’ve already done it, several times.”