'The Best and Worst of Both Worlds'

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Two final exams down, three to go, and Bucknell sophomore Dan Tichinel put a piece of metal into the strain gauge, the machine that forces pressure to the breaking point. "You tighten this up and tighten this up," he said. "And then you run the tests until failure."

Three exams to go. He pulled on his 30-pound backpack, and instead of going to the library, he walked to the only dorm room on campus decorated with crayon drawings and a page from a Barney coloring book, and loaded his pickup truck for the four-hour drive home to his wife and four small children.

At 30, Tichinel left his carpentry job and his family behind in the mountains of Western Maryland for the promise of a better future: a full scholarship to study engineering at Bucknell, a prestigious private university in Lewisburg, Pa., that is luring community college students. It's at once the greatest opportunity he's ever had and the hardest thing he's ever had to do. And all this year, he's been wondering how much stress he can take before he snaps.

Every Sunday, his 2-year-old son cries when Tichinel leaves for Bucknell; every Monday he panics about how much homework he didn't do over the weekend.

He's a rarity on this campus full of young, preppy students -- and a sign of things to come.

Community college students were once largely ignored by research universities. A few decades ago, most wouldn't have been smart enough, or driven enough, to succeed at a highly selective university, said Joshua Wyner, executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is helping people such as Tichinel. But far more students are at two-year colleges now -- there are about 6 million degree-seeking students nationally, almost half of all undergraduates -- and enrollment is growing more rapidly than at four-year schools. With tuition climbing at most universities, the gulf in costs keeps widening.

"If we want to close the gap between rich and poor in this country, we have to find all the talent we can in all the places it exists and develop that talent," Wyner said. "And it's important because our most selective higher education institutions need to be more diverse."

The public universities in Maryland and Virginia now essentially guarantee admission for in-state students who meet certain requirements, such as getting good grades at two-year colleges. And some elite private schools actively recruit; the Cooke Foundation works with eight universities, including Bucknell, to encourage transfers. Recent studies show that such transfer students do as well as, if not better than, students who started freshman year.

That doesn't mean it's easy.

Looking for an Opportunity

Dan Tichinel grew up in Garrett County, a place with fences stretching along empty fields, trailers tucked into the woods and mountains rising behind red barns. His family settled there generations ago, people who worked hard in the coal mines but stayed poor.

He liked school, took the hardest classes and thought he might like to go to college and become a petroleum engineer. But people told him, well, you have to be real smart to do that, Dan. Besides, there was no money for college.

So he learned carpentry and worked construction, earning $8 or $9 an hour helping build vacation homes by the lake for wealthy people from other places.

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