Twenty years ago Monday, Baton Rouge Community College opened its doors in a single two-story building.

“The library was over there; admissions over there; and the bookstore was in that corner,” Laura Younger, BRCC Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs said while walking through a lobby that had served as the student center on opening day, Aug. 20, 1998.

The opening was hectic. The 50,000-square-foot building required hours of overtime to finish. Faculty was still being hired and furniture was being moved.

State leaders expected 700 applicants, but 1,866 had enrolled and had to be shoe-horned into a building that was way too small the moment the ribbon was cut. The school taught two basic associate degrees, liberal arts and sciences, devised by joint faculty teams from LSU and Southern University to meet requirements for transfer to either school.

Two years later, the numbers were up to 2,577 and students had to be wait-listed to attend classes because classrooms were so overcrowded that the fire marshal threatened to shut the place down.

“It was crazy growth, crazy demand. The college had to rethink ‘How are we going to serve this many students?’,” said Helen Harris, vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration. And the institution had to launch a massive building program.

As many as 8,500 students are expected to begin their first day of classes Monday. The Mid-City campus is ringed with six new buildings around a scorching quad whose trees will need another decade of growth before it’s shaded. Today, BRCC has more than 70 degree offerings – from aircraft mechanics to computer network technology to early childhood education – on nine campuses including area vocational training schools.

Created as a key part of a 1994 federal court consent decree to overcome racial discrimination in Louisiana higher education, BRCC and the state’s community colleges were developed to provide students of color and from low income families greater access to higher education.

Initially, the mission was to prepare those students for the rigors of a four-year university.

And in large part that’s what BRCC has done, using smaller classes and more one-on-one teaching, Chancellor Larissa Littleton-Steib told The Advocate.

Last year 2,564 students transferred to complete their education at four-year colleges – 927 to LSU, 391 to Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, and 1,246 to other universities, according to BRCC. Those numbers have been increasing annually. Five years ago, 1,800 students made the transfer.

“In ’94 the thought was solely a transfer mission and that’s still a primary focus,” Littleton-Steib said. “But our mission has evolved to meet the needs of business and industry as well as the students who are enrolling here.”

Sprinkled among the high school graduates is a sizable number of older students, many of whom have been in the workforce, have families and seek additional credentials to improve their employment opportunities.

In 2017, BRCC awarded credentials to 2,392 students, up from 20 in 1999. Since the college opened its doors, it has awarded 16,364 credentials.

But, the road has been bumpy from the very beginning.

State leaders fought over where the campus would go.

College leaders spent an inordinate amount of time answering racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits, countering financial malfeasance accusations and breaking in a merry-go-round of new and interim chancellors.

Then over the past decade, BRCC and its brethren across the state – mostly newly-formed institutions but some older ones repurposed – had to cope with dwindling state support and national questions about whether the two-year colleges were truly serving the needs of taxpayers.

Critics, and their allies in the Legislature, argue that Louisiana’s higher education system remains inefficient and unproductive. They rely on national statistics that show low graduation rates among the state’s four-year institutions. They're called completion rates at the community college level.

Littleton-Stieb counters that the completion metrics being cited are a little off base for community colleges. At BRCC, many students aren’t interested in the associate degrees and workforce certifications.

“We’re kind of a quick stop. Many of our students come to take a few courses, then move on,” Chancellor said. “The completer definition needs to change to better reflect the reality.”

In 2012, the American Association of Community Colleges released data on the two-year college system that it interpreted "the American dream is imperiled." The report called for community colleges to concentrate on three “redesigning" educational experiences, "reinventing" institutional roles and "resetting" the system.

AACC President Walter Bumphus, a former BRCC chancellor, reported in July that the colleges had responded by developing programs that expanded access for students and improved completion rates. "We have a framework of accountability with strategies that came out of it," Bumphus wrote.

In Louisiana, the Legislature, pushed by the Jindal administration, started in 2008 stripping taxpayer funding for higher education by about 45 percent, which shifted the burden to the students over an eight-year period. The Edwards administration stalled the annual cuts but hasn’t been able to add significantly more state money back into college budgets.

Tuition and fees at BRCC were about $528 as compared to $1,354 at LSU. Now the tuition and fees are about $3,250 at BRCC and about $11,000 for a comparable course load at LSU.

In 1998, BRCC’s budget was only $2.2 million, almost every penny of which came from the state, according to BRCC. By the end of its first decade in 2008, the budget was $28.1 million with the state kicking in about 69 percent of the funds and rest being generated by the college, mostly from tuition and fees.

In 2013, when BRCC took control of area vocational-technical schools, the budget jumped to $36.6 million, of which the state provided about 45 percent of the funding.

By the end of June 2018, BRCC’s budget fell by about $600,000 to $36 million, with the state appropriating 42 percent of that amount.

But costs for two-year colleges, which do little primary research, aren’t as much as at the four-year institutions. Faculty pay varies based on the curricula, the person’s certification and education, but for the roughly 185 instructors at BRCC the average pay was $45,985 in 2016, according to the Board of Regents. At LSU, the 1,279-member faculty received an average of $84,916 in annual salary.

Monte Sullivan sees a silver lining in all the imposed austerity.

He heads the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, which also was created 20 years ago to manage the 13 two-year institutions in the state.

“We have leaders who saw budget cuts and knew they had to react, to be much more nimble, much more efficient, much more responsive to the market. It will make us better long term,” Sullivan said.

The ideas – such as consolidating curricula at specific schools, dropping some courses, adding others – have helped Louisiana develop the programs being suggested on a national level to make the two-years institutions more relevant, he said.

Businesses and industries told educators specifically what they needed workers to do. Curriculums were adjusted to train students for the certifications needed to operate a piece of machinery that helped employees move from a job that pays $8 an hour to one that pays $15.

Where once a worker needed a high school diploma to qualify for work that paid enough for the employee and his family to participate in society, improvements in technology now require higher education. Community colleges and vocational schools are adjusting to develop that system.

“No question that when we consider our origins, we are a much different organization today, and we’re still evolving,” Sullivan said. “The impact of what we have done over the past 20 years is perhaps the greatest thing the state has accomplished in the last 100 years.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.