More of the best and brightest heading to community college

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

Kira Cassels applied to 11 colleges and got in to every one. The kitchen of her Laurel home came to resemble a high school guidance office, the breakfast table buried beneath brochures and financial aid forms from destinations such as the University of Virginia and Franklin & Marshall College.

Over two arduous weeks last spring, Cassels sat with her parents and weighed the costs and benefits of each program until the list was narrowed to one: an honors track at the local community college.

Cassels, 18, is one of an increasing number of high school graduates who pass over top-drawer public and private universities to become honor students at community colleges. Recession-wary students are flocking to selective two-year programs, which allow students to complete half of their college education for about $8,000, then transfer to a more prestigious four-year institution.

Cassels attended Atholton High School in the Howard County school system, one of the region's top college-prep engines. She took Advanced Placement courses, earned mostly A's, scored more than 600 on each 800-point section of the SAT and found time to start a nonprofit organization that delivers comfort baskets to infants in intensive care.

She learned to expect a certain reaction -- surprise and dismay -- when telling classmates and family friends that her university admissions journey had ended at a community college.

"You say Howard Community College, and people are like, 'Oh, community college,' " said Cassels, who lives with a younger brother and parents who both work. "But it's really a lot more than it sounds."

Honors enrollment at Howard Community College, a 9,000-student campus in Columbia, has risen from 123 to 185 in the past two years. Cassels enrolled in the signature program, Rouse Scholars, which takes 45 high school graduates each year and offers a proven pipeline to four-year schools. The average Rouse scholar has a 3.7 grade-point average and a combined SAT score of 1596 out of a possible 2400 points.

Over the past two decades, community college honors programs have found a niche among students who were turned down by increasingly selective state universities and didn't want to pay private-college tuition. Enrollment grew steadily until the recession. Then, it exploded.

Montgomery College in Maryland had a record 275 applications this fall for 25 seats in its Montgomery Scholars program, up from 215 last year. Honors enrollment at Prince George's Community College rose 28 percent this year to 292 students. A new honors program at Anne Arundel Community College grew from 22 students last year to 33 this year. On the Loudoun County campus of Northern Virginia Community College, enrollment in honors English is up by 50 percent.

The influx of students with good test scores and multiple options for higher education is reshaping community colleges, a class of schools that, although open to all, have been stereotyped as a destination of last resort, sweeping up students with the least money and the weakest academic preparation.

Enrollment in honors programs at community colleges seems to be growing faster than overall enrollment at the schools, which surged by about 10 percent this year in the Washington region, as students of various age groups and socioeconomic levels sought affordable higher education.

"We've sometimes struggled to get sufficient enrollment in the honors seminars. Well, recently, we've been packing them," said Beverly Blois, dean of humanities at the Loudoun campus of Northern Virginia Community College. "More and more of what I call the best and brightest are turning to us."

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