More university students taking advantage of cheaper community college courses

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; B01

Sean Daly's friends in Potomac spend their summer days planning their summer nights, savoring three months of freedom from the college grind.

But Daly returned home from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and headed straight to the local community college for more classes.

Community colleges in the Washington region are doing brisk business this summer with students from four-year universities. The students are taking advantage of increasingly flexible transfer policies to load up on cheap, convenient credits that will help them graduate more quickly and at a lower expense.

Prince George's Community College enrolled 136 students from four-year colleges this summer, nearly double last year's number. Tidewater Community College in Virginia has 2,150 four-year college students, up 14 percent. Montgomery College has 3,100 four-year college students, about one-quarter of its summer enrollment. No comparison with last year's enrollment was available.

"The community college is part of the rhythm of four-year college attendance, more and more," said Cliff Adelman, a senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The growing role of two-year colleges is part of a broader trend. Three-fifths of those who earn bachelor's degrees attend more than one college, and the percentage is slowly rising, according to federal data.

In a mobile society with an abundance of classes available online, students increasingly view college as a collection of credits rather than a four-year term on one campus. These collegiate nomads, called "swirlers," are becoming a major force in higher education.

Daly, 20, is spending $1,600 this summer for courses in statistics, 20th-century history, nutrition and anthropology. He's satisfying several graduation requirements and completing nearly a semester's worth of credits at Loyola Marymount, where a year of study costs $52,705 in tuition, fees and living expenses.

"I'm saving so much money going to Montgomery College and getting all these classes out of the way," he said.

Daly is paying for college himself and hoping to graduate in three years with a double major in theater and communications. He leaves home each morning with his father, spends the school day at the college, then goes to a lifeguard job at a community pool. He dines with his family at 10 p.m. -- a concession to his lifeguard hours -- then goes out with his friends if he has the energy.

"The hardest part is saying no to people," he said. "It's like every night, no one else has anything to do."

High quality

Federal data show that about 15 percent of four-year college students take classes at community college, chiefly in the summer. Picking up a few summer credits is a well-worn custom for students who have failed classes or are missing general-education requirements. Some Washington area community colleges advertise on four-year campuses.

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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