Ranger College's rapid growth in recent months ranks it as the fifth fastest growing two-year institution in the nation, president Dr. Bill Campion told members of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce Friday at their monthly luncheon.

But it's still a bargain for students, he said, and Brownwood school superintendent Dr. Reece Blincoe agreed.

"We appreciate the dual credit aspect we have for our students," Blincoe said at the end of Campion's remarks during a question-and-answer session. "Dual credit is the deal still left in Texas in higher education."

Campion presented statistics showing that high school students who live "out of district," or in an area of the college's state-designated service area that do not pay property taxes to Ranger, are charged $80 a semester hour. But students who are "in district" pay just $25 an hour.

Only a portion of Eastland County around the city of Ranger pay property taxes, and thus have direct involvement in its administration through board membership.

In answer to a question, Campion said Brown County could become "in district" by collecting enough signatures on petitions to seek a referendum, and have voters approve it. In Texas, the average property tax rate for two-year colleges is 16.5 cents after exemptions, Campion said.

If Brown County did go in district, Campion said local residents would dominate Ranger College's board under the one-man-one-vote provision. For example, if the board had nine members, Brown County would hold seven of them. If the total is seven, Brown County would get six.

"If the whole service area would become in district, the majority of the board would still come from Brown County," Campion said.

The state designates areas for its 50 community colleges, and Ranger College's area has four counties and part of another.

Campion praised the partnerships Ranger College has developed here, including nursing college associations with TSTC and Brownwood Regional Medical Center. He also showed statistics showing that community colleges are generally serving populations different populations than those of four-year universities like Howard Payne University. He said the typical ages of Ranger College students are 10 years older than the "traditional" college students just out of high school.

Meanwhile, Campion said, cities that have two-year colleges statistically have 2-1/2 times more four-year university attendees than cities without a community college.

"Howard Payne is on our campus recruiting students," Campion said.

"Financially, Ranger College faces a big challenge," Campion said. The original funding model for community colleges a few decades ago called for 60 percent state funding, but that is now down to 28 percent statewide. Local tax revenue expectations have grown from 15 percent to 25 percent, and tuition and fees went from 15 to 27 percent. Because of Ranger College's financial situation, its state funding now 58 percent.

"We're doing about all we can do," Campion said.

But he praised the support the college has received from the Brown County community, mentioning particularly Stuart Coleman, the economic development corporations in Brownwood and Early, J.R. Beadel Central Texas Foundation, Brownwood Regional Medical Center and the Brown County Hospital Authority.

"We're thrilled with what's been happening," Campion said. "We're really pleased in the things we have in Brownwood. We think the great future Ranger College has is in Brown County."

The facilities include a primary campus at Heartland Mall in Early with 328 students on site, many of whom are in nursing programs, and the soon-to-be-expanded cosmetology program in downtown Brownwood with 50 students.

But its enrollment out of Brown County is probably in the 500-student range, Campion said, because of online and dual credit courses.

Several courses taught in Brown County are teleconferenced to students attending class in Ranger and Stephenville. Officials are looking for additional space for the Stephenville program.

The college sold $1 million in revenue bonds to fund its Brown County expansion, and it now has an investment of some $2 million here in facilities and equipment.

"Vocational nursing is a large part of what we do," Campion said. "For the class that began in May, the retention rate is close to 100 percent. It may be 100 percent in Brown County."

Starting salaries for vocational nursing graduates is $14 an hour, he said, and the demand for employees seems endless.