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Correction to This Article
An article misspelled the last name of Robert Templin Jr., the president of Northern Virginia Community College.

The Alternative: Younger students give community college a second look

In a difficult economy, more university-bound students are considering community college as an affordable gateway to a four-year degree.
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By Michelle R. Davis
Sunday, April 11, 2010

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.

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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.


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