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More university students taking advantage of cheaper community college courses

But college officials say the economic downturn after the 2008 financial crisis drove more students to view the community college in a new way: as a source for high-quality credits at a bargain-basement price.

"They come home for the summer; they see us as a good value; they take advantage of that; and then they take those credits back with them," said Tracy Harris, dean of enrollment services at Prince George's Community College. "They're starting to understand the idea [that] the sooner you get through those credits, the less costly it is for you."

Community college courses, which typically cost a few hundred dollars apiece, are among the least expensive ways to acquire credits. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams are cheaper, less than $100 each, but those are high school programs, and some competitive colleges are growing more stingy in awarding credit.

Lower cost at a community college doesn't necessarily equate to lower quality. Classes are generally small, and the pace of instruction is swift. Summer schedules often compress semester-long courses into five weeks.

Danielle Morgan DeLoatch, a rising sophomore at Virginia Tech, is studying microbiology at Tidewater this summer. The campus is five minutes from her home in Chesapeake, Va.

The course was so rigorous that enrollment dropped from 30 to 12 after the first week.

"It's the smallest class I've ever had," DeLoatch said. "I'm used to 500 students in the lecture hall. I asked so many questions. That's why I feel like I learned so much."

Mixed feelings

College leaders harbor mixed feelings about transfer credits. They don't want to hinder students from pursuing credits wherever possible. But they are wary of watering down their academic brand.

"We believe -- I think, rightly -- that a degree here adds up to more than just a list of credits accumulated," said Larry Poos, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Catholic University. "On the other hand, we want to accommodate our students and make sure they make progress toward their degrees."

He adds, "We would be very wrong if we didn't recognize that our students and their parents may be under particularly strong financial pressure these days."

Krista DeNovio is spending $800 on two courses this summer at Montgomery College to hasten her graduation from Catholic, where total annual costs are more than $40,000.

DeNovio was laid off from a desk job at a hotel and hasn't been able to find work since, apart from some babysitting. At 24, she is worried about finding money to complete her degree.

"I'm trying not to take out any more loans, not to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt like all of my friends," she said.

Two electives at Montgomery College will count toward her planned December graduation from Catholic: U.S. History From 1865 to Present and Introduction to World Mythology. DeNovio walks to class from her apartment in downtown Silver Spring.

"Don't get me wrong. I love Catholic University," she said. But the community college is "a million times less expensive."

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