By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009; A01
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."Building connections
Community colleges can't match the prestige of a selective four-year college, nor the experience of living on campus. But they can offer small classes, attentive professors, intelligent classmates and inventive course work.
Hajirah Ishaq, a sophomore at Northern Virginia Community College, is studying the architecture of Dulles International Airport and Raphaelite paintings at the National Gallery in a humanities honors course.
Ishaq, 19, said she is going to community college because she is the eldest of 12 children. She describes her honors classmates as "overachievers" with ambitious transfer plans. "They talk about George Washington, Georgetown; they talk about Boston," she said. "They talk about big schools." Ishaq hopes to attend Georgetown.
In Maryland, the centerpiece of the Montgomery Scholars program is a year-long course called "Perspectives on World Cultures." Four professors team-teach a syllabus that covers literature, history, philosophy and music from a global perspective.
"We're seeing connections between different subjects. I really like that," said Lucy Bauer, 18, a freshman Montgomery Scholar who said she "never, never ever" imagined herself in community college until she took a closer look at her family's finances and the school's offerings.
A recruiting meeting in October for next year's Montgomery Scholars drew 350 people for 25 seats. Graduates have transferred to Smith, Amherst and Cornell.
Montgomery Scholars is 10 years old and is modeled on the Rouse program, which is in its 18th year. Barbara Greenfeld, a Howard Community College administrator who helped establish Rouse, said she thinks it is partly responsible for doubling the share of Howard high school graduates who attend the community college, from 12 percent in the early 1990s to 25 percent today.
Howard Community College offers study abroad and a formal transfer agreement with Dickinson College, a selective liberal arts school in Carlisle, Pa., in a program cited as a national model for collaboration between two- and four-year colleges.
"If you have a strong honors identity, it's good for everybody," Greenfeld said.Thrift before prestige
In front of a classroom at the Howard Community College campus in Columbia on a recent afternoon, a classmate of Cassels's announced that she was about to "give you guys a little background on the psychedelic experience."
She and two other students embarked on a multimedia presentation on pop art as part of a course called "20th Century Arts, Culture and Ideas." An hour later, the class had moved on to Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five."
Cassels and her parents chose the community college with the same sense of thrift that guides them these days at the grocery store or the mall. "We're not hurting for money," she said. But she and her parents didn't feel comfortable committing $20,000 to $30,000 a year in tuition and fees, room and board, the amount they would have owed on top of the five-figure scholarships offered by several four-year colleges.
Turning down U-Va. and Franklin & Marshall was a bit of a gamble: There's no guarantee that Cassels will get into the college of her choice as a transfer student in two years. She hopes to finish her bachelor's at Barnard College or Cornell University.
Cassels said it was hard to watch classmates leave home this fall while she stayed behind, as if for a fifth year of high school.
"My other friends, they go away to these other schools, and they come back sometimes, weekends and holidays, and I feel like I miss the college life," she said. "I don't know if it's a shallow thing on my part."
But Cassels said she loves her new classes, the professors and the interdisciplinary projects. She feels challenged. If there is more to college, she's willing to wait a year or two to find out.
"It's not like I'm really losing anything," she said, "except the name of a school."
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