By Michelle R. Davis
Sunday, April 11, 2010; W22
College student Sehrish Shah perched on a well-worn chair in a student activities lounge and pulled markers and glitter paint from her backpack. A white sheaf of poster board was spread on a table, and several other students huddled around it, trying to tap latent artistic genes to create a poster for an upcoming event.
The students, who represented different religious groups on campus, sketched a tree incorporating religious symbols and words into the branches and trunk. They were promoting World Peace Day to foster the idea of various faiths working together. As they sketched, Shah and the other students talked about fundraising possibilities (a kissing booth was rejected), groaned about classes and compared parents' discipline policies.
It's exactly the kind of college experience Shah, 20, imagined when she was a high school senior in Woodbridge: meeting different types of people, taking challenging classes, getting involved in groups on campus, becoming a school leader. But as Shah packed up her papers, she headed home to her parents, not to a roommate and dorm room. And when she stepped out the door to a cold and misty day, she wasn't leaving the confines of the leafy, traditional college campus that she had imagined while wearing her cap and gown at high school graduation. Instead, the doors of Northern Virginia Community College's nondescript Woodbridge campus closed behind her.
"My thing was that I worked hard in high school and I deserved to go straight to a four-year school," she said. "I was judgmental in the beginning. Now that I look at it, I can't believe I used to think that."
As the economy continues to falter, job losses rack up and families' savings dwindle, more students who saw themselves going directly from high school to a four-year institution are instead carving a path to their local community college. The image of the older student returning to community college to take a few classes or brush up on skills -- while still a significant portion of the student body -- is now morphing into that of a younger student who wants more than just a place to take a night course. Nationally, about 46 percent of students on community college campuses are younger than 21, according to a 2007 report from the American Association of Community Colleges, up from 42.5 percent in 2003.
Enrollment at the nation's 1,173 community colleges, which includes technical and junior colleges, has spiked. According to the AACC, from 2007 to 2009, enrollment rose by 17 percent on average. At NOVA, however, enrollment rose by 24 percent, or 11,000 students, in the past three years. Convenience and cost are big reasons. Average annual tuition at community colleges, where students typically earn a two-year associate's degree or some form of certification, is $2,554, compared with more than $7,000 at four-year public institutions and much more at private colleges.
But there's a stigma that remains about community colleges, often seen as a last resort for students who can't get into a four-year school, said Norma Kent, vice president for communications at the AACC.
"My description is that we are the generic brand in a name-brand society," she said. "Most Americans have bought the notion of college as being something one should aspire to, but very often that idea is connected to a brand. Community colleges are the local alternative, and some young people don't see that as quite as exciting."
That is starting to change as students -- and their parents -- realize that if they succeed in community college, they might be able to transfer to prestigious schools, earn a diploma stamped with Georgetown University, for example, and pay half the price. In addition, community colleges are adding more rigorous courses and programs and expanding student activities. Students can join the hockey or lacrosse teams at NOVA and can earn credits through summer travel experiences, such as rock climbing in Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve. At Montgomery College, students can intern at the Smithsonian Institution or join the campus metalheads club. And at Prince George's Community College, students might catch a lecture by famed micro-sculptor Willard Wigan, who creates art so small it can fit in the eye of a needle.
On a Friday afternoon in early March, a group of 18 students sat in Montgomery College philosophy professor Robert White's basement a few miles from the bustling Rockville campus. Along with history professor Mary Furgol and literature professor Clif Collins, the students perched on leather couches and chairs and discussed the poetry of T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats.
Students sipped coffee and munched Pepperidge Farm cookies as the discussion jumped from modernism to Freudian theory, from World War I and the Bible to the paintings of Edward Hopper. The dim basement, with its wood paneling, stained-glass windows and bookshelves filled with tomes on subjects including Einstein and Russian philosophy, seemed a cross between a neighborhood tavern and an eccentric scholar's office. White said he chose the room's decorations to pique students' interests: stone statues of the Buddha, a model of a World War II bomber, a reproduction of "The Red Book" -- a manuscript and drawings by Carl Jung.
This is community college. Granted, it's part of a specialty program started in 1999 and designed by passionate professors aimed at some of the brightest students the college can attract. The Montgomery Scholars program accepted 26 students on full scholarship this school year out of 276 who applied. The range for admission is a grade-point average of between 3.0 and 4.0. The scholarship is funded from the school's operating budget. Students take the majority of their general courses together for two years with the same core teachers. Over the summer, they travel -- again for free -- to Cambridge University in England to study and at the end of the program craft a 20-page paper and present an independent study topic on globalization.
This emphasis on critical thinking, analysis and discussion embodies an ideal of scholarly pursuits, said Furgol, the program's director. The Friday afternoon gatherings in White's basement, nicknamed the Philo Cafe, is emblematic of what the program is aiming for.
"One of our dreams when we started the program was to have the ability to go off campus with students to chat about philosophical issues in a challenging but safe environment," Furgol said.
Diane Lameira, in her first year of the Montgomery Scholars program, said the Philo Cafe has created a bond with her fellow students and professors that spills over into the classroom. The classes she takes at MC that are outside the scholars program "are totally different," she said.
Willowy, with dark hair and a reserved manner, Lameira is a serious student. She graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda with a 3.85 grade point average and an array of Advanced Placement classes on her transcript. Though she's 18, she chose not to get her driver's license so that she could focus on her studies without distractions. Her parents immigrated here from Portugal -- her father is a carpenter, and her mother cleans houses. She's an only child and said she wasn't ready to leave home. She was accepted to nearly every school she applied to and was offered a full scholarship to the University of Maryland.
Still, Lameira chose Montgomery College. The small classes, the access to her professors and the lure of free international travel swayed her. But the decision was hard for her friends to comprehend. "People still don't understand why I went to Montgomery College. There's something that happens when you say 'Montgomery College,' " she said. "They kind of just set it aside and don't think about it or look deeper."
On campus, Lameira is the co-president of the UNICEF Club and secretary of the Psychology Club. She's majoring in psychology and is considering a transfer to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., which guarantees admission and a scholarship to Montgomery Scholars who meet entry requirements. MC has similar admission agreements, based on grade-point averages, with other schools, particularly in Maryland.
Javier Peña transferred to Georgetown University after completing the Montgomery Scholars program last year. Peña, 21, was accepted to the university with a scholarship right out of Magruder High School in Rockville. But he wanted to live on campus if he attended Georgetown, and he said he wasn't ready to move away from home, where he lived with his mother and sister, or far from his church, where he was becoming more active. "I just felt like I needed more growing and maturity to face such a big change," he said.
Peña said that he's had to boost his academic intensity at Georgetown but that the Montgomery Scholars program prepared him well. "The workload is just bigger compared to what I was doing at MC," he said, but he's using the same critical thinking and study skills he honed at the community college.
Still, not everyone who enrolls at community college is there by choice. Frankie Carufel of Fairfax County was working on his applications to four-year institutions, including Howard University, when his mother, Stacie Small, lost her job and six-figure salary as a recruiter of architects and engineers. Paying for a four-year college was no longer an option. "It hit me that it would be hard for me to go to school," Carufel, 18, said.
Small was devastated. She had not graduated from college and was looking forward to watching Carufel, the oldest of her five children, achieve what she had not. But Small said she was proud of her son when he enrolled at NOVA's Annandale campus without complaint.
Carufel, who receives financial aid to attend NOVA and works at Rite Aid in his off-hours, and Small both envisioned NOVA as place for older, working adults. Carufel was surprised the campus had a cafeteria and was excited about possibly playing for NOVA's basketball team. His mother said she was pleased to learn of NOVA's university transfer policies. Generally, NOVA guarantees admission to Virginia's public universities, such as the University of Virginia and George Mason University, for students who earn an associate's degree and maintain a C average.
Nationwide, the average age of community college students is 28, but locally the student body skews younger. Since 2004, the average age of NOVA students has dropped from 29 to younger than 25. The average age of MC students has dropped from nearly 27 to close to 26. About 25 percent of students who earn associate's degrees go on to earn bachelor's degrees within five years, according to the AACC. However, many students at community colleges are there only to earn certificates, and others are attending school part time and therefore may take longer than five years to earn a bachelor's degree.
Students who are attending community college straight out of high school are looking for more of the stereotypical college experience, said Robert Temlin Jr., NOVA's president. "Many of these students are full-time, and they want a program of student activities and cultural events and things to do besides go to class," Temlin said.
Sitting in the campus cafeteria amid noisy groups of students wolfing down turkey wraps, pizza and burgers, Lameira said she's getting a distinct college experience at MC. "My social life is a lot better," she said. "There's so much diversity, so many new ideas and things to think about. I'm here the whole day, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything."
At NOVA Shah, 20, says she is determined to embrace all that community college has to offer. Born in Pakistan, Shah is president of the Muslim Student Association, a leadership position she'd likely have had to wait for until her junior or senior year at a university. As a school student ambassador, she gives tours and earns $10.52 an hour. She's a member of the campus community service group and visited state lawmakers in Richmond to lobby for community college funding.
NOVA "has given me a lot of leadership ability. A lot of people know me," said Shah, whose personality is enthusiastic and bubbly. "I never thought I'd take part in so much, but it's given me a chance to come out and explore things."
One morning in February, Shah took a seat in a back row of her English 101 class as professor Andrew Young began a grammar lesson. The classroom was nondescript -- nearly bare walls, standard-issue desks -- but the mix of 21 students was anything but vanilla. Skin tones ranged from light to dark and all shades in between. Students clearly just out of high school sat next to those who appeared to be in their mid-20s, with styles of dress that ranged from sweatshirts to suit jackets.
Slender with dark eyes, Shah wore an outfit that was decidedly American -- a button-down top and skinny jeans with Uggs-style boots. Her glossy black hair was covered by a bright turquoise scarf, the hijab of a Muslim woman. Wearing it is new to her. She credits NOVA with raising her overall confidence and giving her the poise to don the head scarf. Shah, a communications major, is taking general education classes and plans to transfer to George Mason in Fairfax. She's a conscientious student, taking color-coded notes as her teacher talked.
Shah's road to NOVA was winding, though the campus is only a few miles from the townhouse she shares with her relatives. Her family moved to the United States when she was 4, and Shah graduated from Gar-Field Senior High School in Prince William County with a 3.5 GPA. Though her parents urged her to consider community college, Shah said she turned up her nose. "I was not going there," she said. "It was for people who didn't do well in high school."
When Shah learned she could earn a bachelor's degree in three years from private Westwood College in Annandale, she was hooked. But after one semester, she realized that Westwood didn't offer the classes she wanted, and she left. Because the school hadn't finished processing her financial aid forms, Shah is still paying off the $3,000 cost of her classes there.
Community college officials say they hope the schools' reputation as a place students don't attend by choice is changing, and even Washington is taking notice. President Obama touted the benefits of community college last year when he unveiled the American Graduation Initiative, which would have pumped $12 billion into the schools, with a goal to add 5 million new graduates by 2020. The legislation passed as part of an overall student loan package in the U.S. House but was eventually dropped when that package became part of the health-care reconciliation legislation.
Advocates note that community colleges allow students to take small, general classes that on a university campus might be filled with 100 students and taught by a teaching assistant. Because professors generally aren't focused on publishing and research at community college, they can concentrate on instruction. Arguably, that may mean they're not at the forefront of their field, but some of those teachers -- especially in the Washington area -- are movers and shakers, such as Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, who teaches English as a Second Language on NOVA's Alexandria campus.
However, students considering community college should look closely at the pluses and minuses of not starting out at a four-year school, said Rakesh Chopde, a classmate of Lameira's in the Montgomery Scholars program. Chopde, 18, who struggled to choose between dorm life at the University of Maryland and commuter life at MC, doesn't regret his choice. But he's sometimes envious of his fellow graduates of Burtonsville's Paint Branch High School who are having the "whole college experience."
His classmate Kristin Hoover, 18, who was home-schooled, said she wouldn't have enrolled at MC without the specialty curriculum. Outside the scholars program, she said, some students "lack commitment and involvement. I didn't want to be in a class with unmotivated students who are just trying to get a 'C.' "
But Chris Roxas, 20, who is finishing two associate's degrees at NOVA and will attend George Mason next fall, said community colleges' reputation as places that take everyone -- even those who are struggling and less motivated -- is accurate but not necessarily a negative. "It's a place where some students can get a second chance, but you don't get a free ride. You still have to work hard."
One February afternoon, on a break between classes at NOVA, Shah was greeted at home by her mother, father, twin teenage sisters and a pack of toddler-aged nieces and nephews. Her four older brothers and their wives and children also share the home in what Shah describes as a joint family -- a traditional Pakistani living arrangement.
Sitting in the spotless living room decorated with woven carpets and framed verses of the Koran in Arabic on the walls, Shah spoke Urdu, asking her parents how they feel about her attending NOVA. Her mother, Farhat, a tiny, vivacious woman with a twinkle in her eye, adjusted her brown flowered headscarf and talked about the importance of education, saying she was a teacher in Pakistan. But Shah's father, Jalal, who worked in law enforcement in Pakistan and is now retired after years as a security guard in the United States, described his daughter as "kind of stubborn" and said she learned a tough financial lesson when she went to Westwood. "When I told you not to do it, you shouldn't have done it," Shah translated.
Both said they're pleased with their daughter's progress at NOVA. "She's a good girl," Shah translated for her mother. "Education is a weapon you can use against anything. You can stand up for yourself in any debate."
Shah chalks up her missteps to experience. "The mistakes I made were actually lessons learned. They aren't going to hurt me in the end," she said. "In fact, I ended well."
Michelle R. Davis, a freelance education writer, last wrote for the Magazine about the Milton Hershey School. She can be reached at email@example.com. She and Norma Kent of the American Association of Community Colleges will be online on Monday to discuss this story.