Community colleges are getting a lot of attention in high places.

President Obama has proposed two years of free community college for responsible students and Gov. Kasich wants to allow some four-year degrees at Ohio’s community colleges.

“What’s happening in our nation is a concern about being globally competitive, about being efficient and effective with public resources, and about dealing with an aging population and replacing skilled baby boomers with those coming behind them,” says Dr. Steven L. Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community colleges.

Sinclair is up for the challenge, says Johnson, a Minneapolis native who has been Sinclair’s president for 12 years.

“It’s exciting to be working in a large community college like Sinclair because we’re in a position to do something about this,” he says.

Started 128 years ago in downtown Dayton, Sinclair is the 75th largest of the approximately 1,200 community colleges in the U.S. It has about 35,000 students enrolled annually in courses in more than 200 degree programs and another 10,000 in non-credit courses at its main campus and six regional centers, as well as online.

Currently about half the states allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees, and, if the Ohio General Assembly agrees, Sinclair and other Ohio community colleges could join them.

Sinclair has already done a lot of the groundwork, Johnson says, discussing with area four-year colleges the areas where it could offer degrees and not compete with them.

“We understand what programs we could offer, but haven’t made any decisions yet,” he says.

With a catalogue of degree programs ranging from automotive technology to unmanned aerial systems, hundreds of faculty members with the academic credentials to teach baccalaureate courses and a lower cost structure, Sinclair is in a good position to expand into four-year programs.

Sinclair’s annual tuition rate at just under $3,000 is the lowest among Ohio’s community colleges and more than $1,000 less than the average of $4,142.

Sinclair also awarded more degrees and certificates—18,787—than any other Ohio community college in the five years ending in fiscal 2013, according to Ohio Board of Regents data

“We’re three or four times bigger than the average community college, with twice the offerings. It would be relatively easy for us to take a number of our associate degree programs and extend them,” says Johnson.

Community alignment has been a key to Sinclair’s growth since David Sinclair started evening classes in 1887 for young immigrants at the YMCA to give them skills to work in Dayton’s businesses and factories.

“We are the servant to the community,” say Johnson. “We need to know what the community’s needs are. That’s why we have more than 600 people serving on advisory boards to Sinclair Community College across the region. It’s all about keeping our ear to the ground and being connected.”

As needs change, so have Sinclair’s programs.

“We’re one of Ohio’s biggest online colleges,” Johnson notes, with about 7,000 students enrolled in its online courses.

One of Sinclair’s fastest growing areas is high school dual enrollment as more high school seniors get a jump on their college education.

“Where it used to be maybe an exception or a unique situation 20-30 years ago, now it’s becoming normal,” he says, as more students look for ways to reduce college costs and accelerate their path to a degree.

“In the last five years it’s grown from about 900 students to 2,500 students, and we expect within a few years to hit 5,000 high school students taking classes with us.”

Later this year, Sinclair expects to formally open the Unmanned Aerial Systems National Training and Certification Center in Building 13 on its downtown campus.

Sinclair and the state have invested more than $5 million in renovating the buildings to include unmanned systems, simulation and modeling, advanced manufacturing, and aviation programs.

“It will be a holistic center,” Johnson says, for training and certifications with a data center on site.

Sinclair’s interest in UAS grew out of a trade mission to Israel with other Montgomery County officials five or six years ago that found a connection between businesses there and in the United States on unmanned vehicles. The school started small and expanded as it learned more and added more partners.

Last year Sinclair formed partnerships with the Ohio State University to develop programs on data analytics. And more recently announced a partnership with Tangible Solutions LLC, a Beavercreek additive manufacturer and engineering firm to explore applications for manufacturing of UAS vehicles.

Sinclair has already trained hundreds of students in its UAS program and believes the new center will become an important economic development focal point for the region.

“In the next two years, we will have—with state and federal grants and support from our partners, and our own resources—an investment approaching $10 million in unmanned aerial systems,” Johnson says.

Sinclair is also preparing to invest millions of dollars more in health care training at its downtown campus. It will allow the school to expand its programs for registered nurses and other health care skills such as surgical technology and respiratory therapy.

While society is spending a lot to train the next generation of workers, Johnson says he worries still more needs to be done.

“We need to grow programs by getting more of our friends and neighbors and fellow citizens into college, otherwise we won’t have enough people to fill the job openings coming,” he says.

He also worries that not enough resources are being devoted to education.

“We need to grow access to education, much faster than we grow access to prisons,” he says.