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

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; B01

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.

Taxpayers benefit, too. Community colleges receive a small fraction of the per-student state aid allotted to public four-year colleges.

For transfer students, the region's public universities have never been more welcoming. In Charlottesville, transfers arrive to special orientation sessions and peer advisers. They are often paired with another transfer as a roommate.

"They're not just plopped down and expected to fend for themselves," said Greg Roberts, dean of admission at U-Va.

Still, some transfer students struggle to assimilate to undergraduate campus life. Others, perhaps older than their classmates, may choose to live more like graduate students. Andrea Jones was eight years out of high school when she transferred to U-Va. last year from Piedmont Virginia Community College.

"I'm 26 years old. I don't think I really need to go back and live in dorms and relive the whole experience," she said.

U-Va., a highly selective school, had some misgivings in 2006 when it began guaranteeing admission to qualified community college students. Transfer students gained such a leg up that some high school seniors tried to exploit that route by earning community college credits before graduation. Officials closed the loophole by requiring that transfer students be at least a year out of high school.

The transfer influx has brought diversity to Charlottesville as many top public universities are becoming increasingly wealthy and white. Last year's transfer students were three times as likely as freshmen to come from low-income homes.

Research shows that transfer students graduate at about the same rate as others.

"They've had to work hard to get where they are," said Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, a community college honor society.

Although surveys show that as many as two-thirds of community college students nationally are aiming for four-year degrees, Virginia and Maryland have found that the actual transfer rate is far lower. Many community college students lose their way in a thicket of rules. Part of the problem is higher-education politics. Community colleges have often struggled to win recognition for their courses from four-year schools.

In Maryland, Virginia and other states, transfers have been helped and hindered by a patchwork of hundreds of separate agreements between individual colleges, some applying to a single academic major.

By championing transfers, community colleges are returning to their roots. Joliet Junior College, the first such institution, was founded in 1901 to prepare students for the University of Chicago. California's higher-education system presumes that high school graduates with a C average will start in community college and that every qualified student will get a shot at a four-year degree. Most graduates of the California State University system are transfers.

On the East Coast, two-year colleges have often been perceived as having a primarily vocational mission. But higher-education leaders are pushing for more associate degrees that count toward university study.

Several states are now moving to a uniform two-year degree. California lawmakers are considering a statewide associate degree that guarantees admission to the California State University system. Maryland's new degrees streamline transfers in such popular fields as education and engineering.

Eight states have adopted common course-numbering systems that ensure the transferability of community college credits, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Maryland, with its course database, is one of 26 states that clearly define what students need to transfer.

In Maryland, the biggest growth in transfers has come at the University of Maryland University College, which evolved from a U-Md. evening study program. It emphasizes professional education, commuter convenience and online study -- much like a community college.

Alexandra McKenna, 22, graduated from Kennedy High School in Wheaton, then spent three years at Montgomery College before transferring last year to UMUC. "I was helping my parents save money and saving money myself," she said.

Now she is mulling over a nursing career, as she works full time at a Bethesda hair salon. It might not be the ideal college experience; McKenna lives with her parents in Wheaton and spends more time with customers than fellow students. Then again, it might be her best shot at a bachelor's degree.

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