Michael Ryan

Tarrant County College: amazing affordable access to higher education in Fort Worth

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hated the frog dissection portion of high school biology. Haven’t been able to eat frog since.

Then, as a young, green reporter I was tasked by the city editor with “covering” a random autopsy for no particular reason. I think it was a hazing incident disguised as an assignment. I don’t remember what I wrote; all I can recall is the olfactory unpleasantness.

I’m sure those science-minded students who didn’t turn back at the first sign of an open frog have seen much worse, especially those headed for medical school. And thank the heavens for those capable of it. They keep the rest of us alive and functioning.

But they have astonishing tools today that involve no sensory assaults — as I saw on a tour of the twin Tarrant County College campuses along downtown Fort Worth’s northern edge.

At the Trinity River Campus East Center for Health Care Professions, they have an amazing interactive touch-screen Anatomage “virtual dissection table” on which students can study and manipulate, in 360-degree perspective, every system and organ of the human body. Skin, muscular, skeletal and vascular systems, as well as individual organs, can be isolated for viewing — there’s even an X-ray mode.

Tarrant County College was one of the first community colleges in the nation, and is still one of only a few in Texas, to obtain the science-fiction-like device.

Nearby, TCC nursing students can practice on interactive, eye-blinking mannequins, some of which give birth to a wriggling, crying baby mannequin. Instructors can observe the students’ actions in a separate control room, and even speak through the mannequins. The only thing missing is nervous-father mannequins.

This phenomenal spectacle is just one of many extraordinary everyday feats at TCC’s two Trinity campuses that I’ll take with me. And it reminds me that as we all make our morning commutes to work, pondering what awaits us at our jobs, we pass buildings where some pretty wondrous things are taking place.

Just a little west up the road, at the Trinity River Campus — once the headquarters of RadioShack — dizzying amounts of people and programs are buzzing year-round. It includes the traditional community college role of two-year associate’s degrees, five of which are tailored to those heading to four-year colleges. The five include degrees in music, teaching and science.

But there are so many other technical and academic program offerings that TCC puts out a booklet called “42 Ways to Get Into the Workforce Quickly.” The ways include architecture and computer-aided drafting; construction; HVAC; radio, television and film; accounting and business; fashion; sign language; library technician; culinary arts; IT; criminal justice; and even welding and real estate.

This is not your parents’ community college.

The numbers alone tell you that. In fact, TCC, with six total campuses, bills itself as the seventh-largest college or university in Texas, with more than 51,000 for-credit students. With workforce training and other non-credit programs, TCC serves nearly 100,000 students. Chancellor Eugene Giovannini estimates the economic impact on Tarrant County alone at $1.7 billion in added income.

Just as important, TCC is helping train and educate tomorrow’s workforce — which Texas is in a near-panic state about.

“Experts say that in (2030) 60 percent of Texans will need a certificate or degree for the state to stay competitive in the global economy,” writes the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “Right now, not nearly enough Texas students are completing the levels of education needed to fill the jobs that will be available.”

Welcoming institutions such as Tarrant County College have a unique and vital role in filling that impending workforce need. Its very mission statement refers to “affordable and open access” to higher education. Everyone with a high school graduation or equivalency is accepted, even if they need remediation to pass the required Texas Success Initiative assessment test. TCC also offers GED programs.

Moreover, the cost of attendance is a fraction of that at most other colleges and universities. As I’ve seen for myself, the quality is right up there, too. And how about this: Those 55 and older can attend unlimited classes for a single $20 registration fee per semester.

No one should feel left out of, or hopelessly intimidated by, the notion of higher education when a facility such as Tarrant County College is its gatekeeper.

Anyone driving by TCC, meanwhile, needs to know that something spectacular is going on inside.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.