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Community Colleges Bask in Popularity

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Amy Ingraham didn't leave high school with dreams of pursuing higher education. But after slinging hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant for $5.65 an hour, she became convinced that a college career was the route for her.

Three years ago, the Rockville, Md., resident enrolled at a nearby campus of Montgomery College. Now 21, she plans to one day parlay her credits from the suburban Washington community college into a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland and a career counseling troubled students.

Ms. Ingraham has plenty of company. More young Americans than ever before are planning to go to college, applying for college admission, and attending institutions of higher education. And roughly half of all college undergraduates are on community college campuses.

The number of students flocking to two-year schools may well grow larger this year as President Clinton's HOPE Scholarship program kicks in. The initiative offers middle-class families a two-year tax credit of $1,500--the average annual tuition for community college--to help shoulder college costs.

But chances are that many of the students who see two-year programs as a steppingstone to a four-year school will never earn a baccalaureate degree.

Statistics from students who started in community colleges in 1989 show that just 37 percent had attained an associate's degree, a vocational certificate, or a bachelor's degree five years later. By comparison, 72 percent of students who start at four-year colleges either have earned a bachelor's degree within five years or are working on one.

"If students are thinking of community college as a way of getting a four-year degree, the fact of it is that going to a community college has reduced their mobility chances," said Kevin J. Dougherty, the author of The Contradictory College, a 1994 book on the growth of community colleges published by the State University of New York Press.

But community college leaders and some higher education experts point out that many of the students on those campuses never set out to get a four-year degree in the first place. They may instead be aiming to train for a career in such fields as nursing or ornamental horticulture. Or they might be retirees taking up painting, immigrants studying English, or workers sharpening their computer skills.

"One of the things that's important in this area is that we don't lose the forest in looking at the trees," said David Baker, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University. "We've had, over this century, continual growth in the number of secondary school finishers who try some sort of postsecondary education, and that's important." With or without a degree, Mr. Baker and others contend, one or two years of college is better than none at all.

Varied Mission

The first community colleges were founded at the turn of the century as a way of increasing access to higher education in the rapidly growing and industrializing nation.

Enrollment grew steadily for decades, then shot up during the 1960s to the mid-1980s, as baby boomers reached college age. From 1975 to 1994, enrollment in community colleges grew 39 percent--from 3.9 million to 5.5 million, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Enrollment at four-year schools, in comparison, grew about 21 percent during the same period.

How experts view the growth in community colleges depends in part on how they see the mission of those institutions. Because of their open admissions policies, community colleges have come to serve a wide variety of students, ranging from welfare mothers to retirees. And, in response to the needs of an increasingly diverse enrollment, the community college has broadened its mission over the course of the century.

Norma Kent, the spokeswoman for the Washington-based AACC, said the purpose of community colleges is primarily threefold: to provide lifelong learning, to offer career training, and to serve their traditional population of students headed to four-year colleges. Currently, officials estimate, future baccalaureate students make up only about a fifth of enrollment.

Community colleges also offer remedial classes for students with weak academic skills and contract with private companies to offer customized skills training for their workers.

Proponents of community colleges see this variety of missions as the institutions' great strength and the reason for their growth. But Steven Brint, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, said that in serving so many masters, community colleges may be giving their more academically oriented students short shrift.

"I have no argument with people preparing for careers, but I think often the occupation programs can be oversold," he said. "The one thing that can be said is that the colleges are not trying to heat up students to achieve more. If anything, they're simply channeling students to lower levels of the occupational structure."

Getting Off Track

Nationwide, for example, some studies show that the proportion of community college students who transfer to four-year schools has dropped since the early 1970s. In Maryland, the number of students transferring from two-year schools to four-year public campuses has declined steadily since the 1990-91 academic year.

Montgomery College, where Ms. Ingraham is enrolled, bucks the trend. According to college officials, more than half the students there plan to transfer to a four-year university--a percentage that has held steady for years. About 1,500 of Montgomery College's students each year transfer into the state university system.

Experts note that many factors can conspire to knock students off the road to a university education or out of school altogether. Often, life tends to get in the way. Typical community college students are 28 or 29 years old, poorer than four-year college students, and more likely to be minority and female.

"They're trying to juggle school and work and families all at the same time, so it takes longer than it does for an 18-year-old university student to get what they're after," Ms. Kent of the AACC said.

Job offers also lure students away.

"Maybe they find a job and they say to themselves, 'Well, heck, I'm making $25,000 a year, what do I need a bachelor's degree for?'" said Debra Bragg, an associate professor of community college leadership at the University of Iowa. "Even though," she added, "that might not benefit them in the long run."

Additional Roadblocks

Norton Grubb, a professor of higher education at the University of California, Berkeley, suggested that the number of freshmen who say their goal is a bachelor's degree may be inflated because many of those students are still experimenting with college study.

"If you come to college when you're a high school senior and someone gives you a questionnaire to fill out and you don't know what you're going to do, you check the baccalaureate box because you know that's the acceptable thing to say," he said.

Some students find they can't afford the leap from an inexpensive community college to pricier four-year schools. Others turn away after being accepted to a college but not to the branch, campus, or program to which they applied.

"As a transfer student you're farther back in the queue," said Mr. Dougherty, the author of The Contradictory College, who is also a research associate for the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

And, because most community colleges are commuter schools, it's easier for students to quit before they even try to transfer. They have not yet formed the kind of emotional ties experienced by residential students at universities.

But some of the blame, Mr. Dougherty adds, must go to the four-year schools for setting up additional roadblocks. Colleges and universities--even those that are part of a state college system in some parts of the country--may reject a significant number of the credits earned by students at their community colleges. Others won't accept credits for courses taken out of sequence. Still others postpone granting credits until students take a successor course and show they know the material.

Though some of those policies may stem from a reasonable desire to uphold academic standards, Mr. Dougherty said, they might also result from a university's built-in interest in having students take as many courses as possible while they're enrolled.

But proponents of community colleges say that situation is changing in several states.

Colorado, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio, for example, have passed legislation guaranteeing that community college credits earned for core academic courses will automatically transfer to the state university or college system, said Tony Zeiss, the president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C.

Bargain Studies

Ironically, the estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of community college students who eventually make their way to four-year schools do just as well, after an initial period of adjustment, as students who are native to those campuses, studies have shown. And one study even shows that they seem to have learned just as much as their university counterparts during their two-year stint.

"A two-year college is a heck of a lot cheaper than a four-year college, and there's not a whole lot of evidence to say the education is that bad," said Ernest T. Pascarella, a researcher from the University of Iowa who conducted that study. He and his research partner, Patrick T. Terenzini, studied thousands of community college and university students who were equally matched in academic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The students took a battery of tests during the first semester of college and again two years later. The researchers found few differences between the groups in how much students' scores improved.

Still, experts say, the fact that some students are veering from their original goal of a four-year degree is troubling because the gap between the earnings of students who end their school careers in high school and those who graduate from college is widening. And students with four-year degrees earn more over the course of a lifetime and have more job security than peers with associate's degrees or less. (In some fields, however, such as medical technology, community college graduates can earn just as much.)

But, by the same token, a two-year degree reaps more economic benefits than no college at all.

"Why do we as a society try to measure success based upon whether our child goes to a university?" asked Mr. Zeiss of Central Piedmont College.

Experts disagree, though, over whether one or two years of college--leading to no degree--is any better than a high school diploma in predicting future earnings. And that, some experts point out, is where many community college students end up.

Unanswered Question

The big unanswered question is the role the new federal income-tax credit for college tuition will play. Some community college administrators agree with Mr. Zeiss that the program could be as important as the GI Bill in spurring community college enrollment.

But Mr. Grubb of UC-Berkeley argues that the tax credits will be useless in attracting more low- and moderate-income students to postsecondary campuses of any kind. "They won't qualify for the tax credit because they don't have high enough incomes," he said. "Instead of wasting $6 billion on tax credits, the Clinton administration should've spent more money on improving the quality of the programs in colleges."

But the credits are being marketed on the belief that, in an increasingly technological society, students need more than a high school education. "We must make two years of college--the 13th and 14th years of education--as universal for young Americans as the first 12 are today," Mr. Clinton said in his State of the Union Address a year ago.

It is a belief countless parents and high school guidance counselors seem to support. Federal statistics show that parents and counselors were twice as likely to recommend college to high school sophomores in 1990 as they were in 1970.

Ms. Ingraham of Maryland's Montgomery College shares that belief, too. "You can't do anything without a degree," she said. A former reform-school student, she might stand no chance at all of getting into a four-year school were it not for community college, she believes.

Now, with three years of postsecondary study under her belt, Ms. Ingraham has settled on counseling as her career choice. But even she is not sure when--and if--she will ever make it to the University of Maryland: "I just take it one day at a time."

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