Community-college transfer students in Va., Md., easing into university level

Transfer student Alexandra McKenna: "I was helping my parents save money and saving money myself."
Transfer student Alexandra McKenna: "I was helping my parents save money and saving money myself." (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Public universities in Virginia and Maryland are drawing unprecedented numbers of students from community colleges, building a transfer pipeline that is changing the traditional path to a four-year degree.

In the past few years, state colleges have agreed to common standards for many community college courses and then guaranteed admission to applicants with good grades. The shift helps families save money on tuition while bringing the four-year schools a more diverse student body.

Transfer students also can alter the dynamics of a college campus. Unlike typical undergraduates, for instance, they often have far more experience in the ups and downs of the working world.

Interest in transfers been heightened by the economic downturn. "Think of us as the lowest-cost on ramp to an undergraduate degree," said Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia community colleges. "Americans are pretty good at shopping price and value."

Community college transfers rose 36 percent in Maryland and 34 percent in Virginia from 2000 to 2008, outpacing overall college enrollment growth in those states. Transfers to the University of Virginia doubled in that time, to more than 280 annually, which represents just under 10 percent of the typical junior class. Transfers were up 17 percent at the University of Maryland, 27 percent at George Mason University and 53 percent at Towson University. Each of them accepts more than 1,000 transfers a year.

Saoussen "Susie" Mahjoub is emblematic of the trend. Three years ago, she enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, working part time and living with her mother. Now, the 24-year-old Tunisian immigrant is on track to graduate from U-Va. She still can't quite believe that a transfer delivered her to the upper echelon of higher education.

"I wake up in the morning, and I thank God for where I am," she said.

In the past five years, Virginia's 23 community colleges have reached accords from school to school. for transfer admissions.

Maryland higher-education leaders are rolling out new statewide two-year degrees, accepted at every public four-year college. An online database gives community college students the transfer value of each course.

More than one-third of graduates from Virginia's four-year colleges began in community colleges, the state estimates. The rate is higher in Maryland. There are no comparable figures for the District, which until last year lacked a traditional two-year college.

Students who start in community college save enormously on tuition, and they often live with parents and work full time.

The evolving system fulfills the vision of Thomas Jefferson -- the nation's third president and founder of U-Va. -- of a college within a horse ride of every home.

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