Columbia State Community College’s $46 million Williamson County campus will open to students May 31, with a grand opening celebration planned June 22.

More than 20 years after visionary CSCC leaders started asking for funds to build a new Williamson County campus, the first three buildings near Carothers Parkway and Liberty Pike off Interstate 65 in Franklin will open to meet higher education needs in southern Middle Tennessee. It signals another wave of growth for Columbia State, which recently was designated as one of the country’s top 150 community colleges in a renowned college excellence program.

“It is exciting, very exciting,” CSCC President Janet F. Smith told The Daily Herald. “The college has worked for many years, especially since 2000, for a new campus. There has been a lot of work that has moved us forward to enrolling students in May. There’s a big smile on our face to know we have the accomplishment. It’s good for our faculty, but it’s especially good for our students.

“This new facility, to me, shows the quality on the outside of what has occurred on the inside of the walls ever since we’ve been there,” Smith added.

CSCC has more than 5,300 students, with 1,500 enrolled in the outdated brick Williamson campus building at 104 Claude Yates Drive. When classes move the new campus for the start of summer semester, Smith said enrollment should grow to 2,200 in Franklin within two years.

Three buildings for Science, Humanities and Administration/Student Services have been constructed and will be filled with new furnishings. The week after spring graduation, the college will make the full move.

“All three buildings are ready to go,” Smith said. “We have keys to two of them and will have keys to the third at the end of February.”

The $46 million price tag included land and construction. The 38 acres of land was purchased for $6.2 million in a highly coveted area of Franklin, with 28 acres suitable for building.

“With the population growth of Nashville, Williamson County and even into Marshall County, we think the Williamson campus will grow as large as the campus in Columbia,” Smith said.

The Williamson campus will offer a full science transfer degree, Smith said. It will continue to be known for its nursing, film crew, commercial entertainment and informational technology offerings.

“We anticipate the workforce development section will grow as well,” Smith said. “We have not had space before to work with local businesses, corporations and industries to offer specialized programs. We have space for them now. The ability to offer chemistry and physics expanded offerings tremendously.”

Smith said she received notification after Christmas about the top 15 recognition from The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

“At first, I thought someone was messing around with us,” Smith said. “Then I read it again, and I thought, ‘Wow. Wow! We are in the top, with an the elite group.’ I think it’s because our faculty and staff have made a real concerted effort to look at student engagement and student success. The data about us nationally shows we’re meeting student needs.

“Yes, it is a great accomplishment,” she added. “It speaks to the community, from an outside source, as to the value of the institution they have. It’s our hope the community will see this and be proud and increase the pride they have in the college. We’re very honored to have been selected.”

Community colleges have led the way in giving students specialized instruction. More than half of the students who enroll in CSCC and other state junior colleges come to campus unprepared for college-level work. Community colleges have to sharpen skills in reading, writing and math before students can advance toward a degree.

“In reality, we have always been about student success,” Smith said. “It’s always about working with students and quietly moving them forward. There’s just more attention being given to us now.”

That attention comes from Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program, which offers high school graduates two years of free tuition, and Drive to 55, a push to ensure 55 percent of state residents have college degrees or training certificates by 2025. Haslam also wants to split the Tennessee Board of Regents, allowing the state’s four-year schools to create their own boards and have a separate one for community and technical colleges.

No one would argue with the governor’s efforts to improve opportunity. I am concerned about the branding aspects of Tennessee’s community colleges and centers for applied technology. As communities like Franklin benefit from sparkling new college facilities, it would seem local leaders would want them named for their own towns and cities.

Just as it’s Tennessee Center for Applied Technology-Hohenwald, giving the community a sense of pride in its school, will some well-meaning member of the Tennessee Board of Regents come along soon and suggest renaming Tennessee’s community colleges? Instead of Columbia State, for example, would it be Tennessee Community College-Franklin?

That would ruin 50 years of progress and hard work by administrators, faculty, students and community leaders in building Columbia State into a nationally recognized gem.

“The TCATs always have been connected in their name,” Smith said. “Tennessee community colleges always have had uniqueness in their name, reflecting communities that first provided support for them and sought them.”

Columbia State’s Williamson campus includes 107,915 square feet of new construction, but it will not be the last project. In CSCC’s still-in-progress, 10-year master plan, Smith envisions and a new health sciences building and renovated library in Columbia and another building or two in Franklin.

“The potential of individuals and the economic development of our communities are at the heart of the college’s work,” Smith wrote on CSCC’s web site. “Our mission is to provide individuals with viable, quality learning options for meeting their educational and life goals – goals that provide a pathway to prosperity for them and their families.”