Once you get the language down you will be okay.

That is what her brother told her, and though she had never stopped believing it, there were days when she despaired of ever mastering this strange new tongue. Yet none of the hopes she brought to her adopted country could be realized unless she understood it.

And so, shortly after arriving in the United States in 1994, Kim Thahn Tran began studying English as a Second Language (ESL) at Northern Virginia Community College. Her progress was slow -- 6 credits, 12, 18. Still she wasn't ready to begin taking the kind of courses that would prepare her for a job. "I was so disappointed with myself," Kim says. "I was under a lot of pressure."

Her brother Sang, who had come to the United States in 1983, had worked for 11 years to give her this opportunity, and sometimes she wondered if she would ever be able to seize it.

Her studies dragged into a third semester, and then a fourth. A three-credit class only cost about $120, but even at that rate the expenses were becoming a burden. She took a job sorting magazines in the library of the college's Loudoun County campus, and the position had unexpected benefits.

"I could understand writing pretty well," Kim says. "But I had such problems with speaking and understanding speaking. The people I worked with were the ones who helped me to pronounce. When I had trouble, they helped me."

Finally, after 50 credits of ESL, Kim was ready. In 1997, she began taking courses toward her associate's degree, and it turned out that Sang was right; her studies came easily. Her grade-point average climbed to 3.5.

Next spring, she hopes to graduate with a dual degree in computer science and information systems technology. Next fall she plans to enroll at George Mason University. Next to Sang, she says, NOVA, as the community college is commonly called, has played the biggest role in her success.

"I could not have done this another way," she says. "To go to a big university with hundreds of people in a class, that would have been very hard for me."

NOVA has been the best supporting actor in tens of thousands of educational dramas since its founding in 1965. Each semester it opens its doors to a constituency that includes immigrants who need help learning the language; students who can't afford a four-year college; kids who didn't take high school seriously enough; downsized industrial workers seeking new skills; restless professionals considering a career change; women who have raised their children and want to finish their degrees; and people just looking to cram a little low-cost self-improvement into their lives.

When the college opened, it consisted of one building and an enrollment of about 750 students. Today NOVA maintains five campuses and enrolls 60,000 students. It is the third-largest multi-campus community college in the country, and it is still growing. A sixth campus, in Springfield, is scheduled to open next fall, and cultural centers are under construction on its campuses in Alexandria and Loudoun County.

"When I became president in 1968, the state thought we might grow to 10,000 students," says Richard J. Ernst, who was NOVA's president for 30 years. "But you know, education is like retail in one way: location, location, location. The area grew, and we grew with it."

NOVA's success is also emblematic of the rising importance of community colleges. Some 5.4 million students are enrolled in the nation's 1,132 community colleges. Another 5 million are enrolled in continuing education courses that do not count toward a degree. In comparison, 8.8 million students attend the nation's 2,267 four-year institutions.

"The community college has replaced the GI Bill," says John V. Ehle Jr., a professor of sociology at NOVA. "It has made higher education available to anybody and everybody."

Community colleges flourish in every county in the Washington area. These institutions include Montgomery College, which enrolls 21,000 students at its three campuses, in Rockville, Takoma Park and Germantown; Prince George's Community College, which enrolls 12,300 students at its campus in Largo; and Howard Community College, with more than 5,200 students at its campus in Columbia.

"These are institutions that are critical to our society and our economy," says George Baker, a professor of education at North Carolina State University who specializes in training community college executives. "They prepare people to become good citizens, good employees and good consumers." Baker is among those who think that a grateful nation should be showering community colleges with praise. But he's been in education long enough to know that isn't likely to happen.

Community colleges, no matter how large and no matter how vital, have profiles so low as to be almost invisible. Many, including NOVA, do not have sports teams to keep them regularly in the public eye. They don't have prestigious medical centers or the kind of high-profile faculty for whom universities engage in bidding wars. Their public relations departments don't provide the local media with a bulging directory of "experts" who can be contacted for a little insight on deadline. When U.S. News & World Report and other magazines rank the nation's top colleges, they don't bother with two-year schools. Community colleges, quite literally, don't rate.

"There is a stereotyped perception that a community college is a place for losers or for people who weren't that bright to begin with," says Lynn Barnett, director of academic, student and community development for the American Association of Community Colleges. That perception is prevalent even among some students. "Sometimes they will say to me, `Well, I couldn't go to a real college, so I went to NOVA,' " says Cyrilla Vessey, a professor of world literature at NOVA. "I always remind them this is a real college. The credits they earn here are acceptable anywhere."

But Belle S. Wheelan, president of NOVA, says she doesn't spend much time worrying about the status question. "I think there is a place for researchers and thinkers and ivy-covered walls and a place for the worker bees and the folks who want to get down and dirty with it," she says. And she is proud to say that NOVA is the second kind of place.

Chris Blue is easy to pick out of the lunch-time crowd in the cafeteria of NOVA's largest campus, in Annandale. He's the only one wearing hospital scrubs. Chris has to go to work right after class. He is a radiology technician at Georgetown University Hospital, where he puts in about 30 hours a week. He's also carrying 10 credits this semester, and he's got the ragged affability of somebody who is overworked but doesn't mind.

"You have to cut back on some things," he says. "Like sleep and socializing." When he graduated from McLean High School two years ago, Chris wasn't sure what he wanted to do next. "I figured if I went to school here, it wouldn't cost me so much to figure things out."

Affordability is a community college's strongest selling point. A three-credit course at NOVA costs Virginia residents about $120. Tuition for a typical 15-credit semester would run about $600. It's $1,200 less than at Virginia Tech, almost $1,300 less than at George Mason, and nearly $1,500 less than at the University of Virginia. And if you live at home, like most young NOVA students, you also save on room and board.

Maryland's community colleges are somewhat more expensive, but still cheaper than four-year institutions. The cost of a three-credit course for a county resident ranges from $174 at Anne Arundel Community College to $243 at Howard Community College. The low tuition makes a higher education accessible to students who otherwise might not receive one. More than 40 percent of NOVA's student body comes from what educators like to call "underserved populations." Fifteen percent are African American, 13 percent are Asian and 9 percent are Hispanic.

For many students, be they low-income, mid-career or fresh out of high school, the flexibility of a community college's curriculum is another strong selling point. Those who hope to attend a four-year institution must complete curricular requirements, but those who don't have the time, the money or the inclination to go this route can immerse themselves quickly in a technical field and sometimes find a job immediately.

Chris, who had become interested in medical technology while working in a dentist's office in high school, took a course in radiology during his first semester at NOVA. The course led to an internship and the internship became a job. He is now among the 80 percent of NOVA students who work at least part time, and he's just a few hours per week from being among the 50 percent who work full time.

"For many of our students, education is not the primary responsibility," says Fred Hecklinger, the college's dean of student development. "These are adults who have a variety of things going on."

Because students at NOVA are handling other responsibilities, education at the institution has an extremely practical cast. "We understand that many of our students want to make a better life for themselves right away," Wheelan says.

This emphasis on preparing people for the workplace, or accommodating those who are already employed, is both a strength and a source of conflict within community colleges.

"Most of us are cognizant that people are looking for a way to make a living, not necessarily to become cultured," says Cyrilla Vessey. "They want to get through their business and computer science courses and get out there and get a job.

"At least some of them think that studying the liberal arts is a waste of time. There is some impatience with things like freshman composition. They don't think they are going to have to write anything."

The tension between technical education and a more traditional liberal arts education is unavoidable at community colleges. They are charged with doing both. But many professors in the arts and sciences worry that the computer-driven revolution in technical studies is leading their institutions to de-

emphasize what used to be called the "core" curriculum.

"More and more we are becoming less essential," says sociology professor John Ehle. "It is a fact of life. It is a great frustration because we don't think that we are giving students the broad base that they need."

But George Baker of North Carolina State applauds the trend toward more occupationally oriented education. "What in the world could we be doing that is more important than getting people ready to make a living?" he asks. "It's got to be greater than studying the culture and the arts. It has got to be linked to how the person makes a living and feeds their family."

Belle Wheelan points out that students seeking a degree still have to fulfill core requirements. And she warns students in technical fields not to form too narrow a view of what will be required of them in the workplace. "The employer is saying, `I want them to know how to read and write and think correctly and how to work in teams,' " she says. "Because not only do you have to do your job, whatever it is, but you have to explain to the other members of your team how you do it. So what I say to students is that language arts matter to you very much."

However, she acknowledges that responding to the silicon revolution is the most difficult challenge that the college faces. "Not only did this happen quickly," she says, "but it happened quickly with great magnitude. We've had to design new programs, hire new adjunct faculty and keep our equipment up to date."

Responding to this challenge has become a more urgent matter in recent years. "Proprietary institutions," the opaque phrase for colleges that aim to make money, have shot up around the country, their growth spurred, in large part, by the technological revolution. The University of Phoenix, which offers courses at 24 sites (the nearest site is in Columbia) and an extensive distance-learning network, is perhaps the best known of these institutions. In the Washington area, Strayer University, which offers classes at 13 sites and has 11,500 students, holds the largest share of the market. The growth of these institutions reflects the intense public pressure that is also driving community colleges to emphasize job training, often at the expense of liberal arts.

"It certainly demands we rechannel resources," Wheelan says. "I think everyone recognizes that."

They recognize it, but many of them don't like it.

On the first day of classes, several humanities professors had hung signs in the halls of the building where students registered for classes, urging students to take their courses. There were no similar signs for technology classes.

One reason for the seeming decline of interest in the arts and sciences is the different breed of student pouring into community colleges, a breed the colleges had not previously attracted in such numbers. These are not people beginning their education. They are people who already have degrees. People like Phil Riggin.

Phil is sitting alone at a table in the cafeteria of the Alexandria campus on this afternoon. He's sorting dozens of slides spread out on the table in front of him, holding each one to the light, studying it, and putting it in its proper place. Phil is in his mid-forties, a nurse in the intensive care unit at Georgetown University Hospital. He graduated from college 23 years ago, but now he is back, because "20 years is enough in one profession."

He wants to be an architect.

The slides are for his class in advanced architectural drawing. He has to give a presentation in an hour and a half on "the nature of edges." All weekend he has been contemplating the essence of edge-ness, or edge-hood. What purpose does the edge serve? Does a beam of light have an edge? The questions delight him.

"I guess a few years ago I was one of those people who thought of community colleges as the ugly stepsister of higher education," he says. "But going back to a normal university would have been impossible without putting a second mortgage on my house. I can't thank these people enough."

Although he is the oldest person in the cafeteria at the moment, Phil is not alone in returning to college at midlife. The average NOVA student is almost 27 years old, but 40 percent of the students are over 30, and 10 percent are over 45. More significantly, 20 percent of NOVA's students are what the college calls "reverse transfers," people who already have at least a bachelor's degree. A few even have PhDs.

Some of these older students want to master very specific skills -- usually in computer science or information technology. But others, like Phil, are seeking to change their lives.

When he decided to pursue a career in architecture, Phil chose NOVA because it was inexpensive and convenient. At the time, he assumed his architectural horizons might end with an associate's degree. On the first day of class, however, he learned that students who already had a bachelor's degree could qualify for admission to a master's program at Virginia Tech if they completed their associate's degree.

"You could see eyes widening around the room," he says. "I was elated." He's now in his second year of classes and hopes to be studying at the Virginia Tech campus in Falls Church by next fall.

Going back to college at midlife has been a strange but rewarding experience. "When you are 45 years old and going back to school, it gives you a completely different perspective," Phil says. Because older students have "learned all the social function" of early adulthood, they often feel freer to converse with teachers, he adds. "I guess that is what age does for you. When you are not busy creating your identity, you can really focus."

On the other hand, he adds, "I was out of school for 23 years. Getting back into math was really hard."

The presence of older students adds another level of complexity to the formidable challenge already facing NOVA's faculty: how to find common ground and common reference points when teaching a class that is so diverse in age and ethnicity.

The issue presents itself most forcefully in relation to international students.

"On the first day of classes I always ask my students where they are from," says Len Palumbo, a professor of business. "One will say, `I was born in Arlington,' and another will say, `I was born in Afghanistan.' I don't think there is an institution in the United States that has that kind of diversity." Almost 15 percent of the student body (some 8,500 students) are either immigrants or foreign nationals. NOVA students come from more than 160 countries. The largest groups of foreign students come from Vietnam and India, but there are also large communities of South Koreans, Ethiopians, Salvadorans and Peruvians.

In Palumbo's classes students frequently work on assignments in small groups. "I always try to make sure that the groups are diverse culturally," he says. "It gives them a chance to work with all sorts of people. And that is what they will have to do in the workplace."

Some international students have difficulty understanding the customs of American education. John Ehle says that Iranian students don't necessarily consider sharing answers on a test to be cheating. And Palumbo notes that taking tests individually can be a jarring experience for Asian students, many of whom are used to studying in groups.

"The commonality is everybody is here to learn," says Betsy Carter, who has been a counselor at NOVA for 12 years. "For the most part, students choose to be here regardless of age, regardless of culture, and using that as a common bond, there is a wonderful synergy."

That synergy is evident primarily in the classroom, where students from different cultures bring different insights and biases to the subject at hand. Anywhere but the classroom, however, the students tend to cluster with others from their country.

Says Len Palumbo, "The common threads don't really extend much beyond the economic."

Finding your social niche at a community college is not easy, in part because few niches exist. Students tend to show up for class and depart immediately afterward. NOVA's administrators say that creating a sense of community is difficult, if not impossible, at a commuter school, and one look at NOVA's Annandale campus tells you why.

Most colleges have a dominant architectural feature, whether it is a Gothic clock tower, a football stadium big enough to hold the entire town, or a green, grassy quadrangle where students congregate in the fall and spring. The Annandale campus's most striking architectural feature is its parking lot.

It is a vast parking lot, almost as large as the campus itself. It is a parking lot with neighborhoods, different methods of payment, different driving customs. People roll up, take their classes and roll away. The campus is not surrounded by a pleasantly ramshackle student ghetto, like many other colleges. It has not spawned the youth-oriented business district that borders most schools of this size.

The college has so little sense of itself as a community that most of its buildings don't even have names, just letters. Palumbo's office, for instance, is in CC. This is a no-frills institution.

There is, of course, a great deal to be said for a no-frills approach to higher education, particularly at a time when universities and academic culture are under fire from several directions. In a 1998 survey the Education Commission of the States found that most governors were dissatisfied with the cost and quality of higher education in their states. At the same time, business leaders complain increasingly that college graduates are not prepared to enter the work force. Meanwhile, university faculties have come under criticism from budget-minded politicians for spending too little time in the classroom and from conservative intellectuals for using their teaching to advance a leftist political agenda. None of these criticisms have been leveled against community colleges.

"In general we have not been tagged with the reasons that the public is down on higher ed," says David Pierce, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. "We have been able to separate ourselves in terms of image from the universities. One of the things for which we have earned an enormous amount of favor with policymakers and with the public is that we have kept an eye on the ball of cost effectiveness. People appreciate that." People also appreciate that the primary responsibility of a community college faculty member is to teach classes. Lots of them. The typical NOVA faculty member teaches about seven classes while a typical college professor teaches about five.

And finally, people appreciate that the community colleges are responsive to the marketplace. "They are finally recognizing what we have been doing for 100 years," says Belle Wheelan. "We are affordable. We can design programs quickly. We can do it faster for less money and we still have quality."

So should universities take a lesson from their poor relations at the community college?

"I don't know about that," says Wheelan. "I think there is a place for each. I've spent more than 20 years in community college administration, but I wouldn't trade my liberal arts education for anything."

"No," says Palumbo. "There has to be somewhere in a society for advanced thinking to take place. If that happens in the four-year colleges, the state universities, so be it."

But isn't it tempting to market the college to politicians as well as to the public as a populist alternative to more elite and expensive institutions? "I don't think you will see that," says Palumbo. "The reason is that marketing and tooting your own horn are relatively new concepts in higher education. It is a really soft sell. Also, there is a question as to whether a community college should market itself. We are here to serve the community, so maybe what we should do is just open our doors."

This fall, one of the students NOVA opened its doors to was Sally Pearce. On the first day of classes she was sitting on a bench in the shade on the Annandale campus, eating a bag of pretzels and drinking a Coke. She had just attended her first class and, perhaps, begun a new life.

"I've been dependent for 36 years, and I thought it was time for me to be independent," she says. "I've been a mom and a wife, and now it is time for me."

Sally's husband and her three children all have master's degrees, but she hasn't studied on campus since she left Greenbrier College for Women in the early '60s to get married. She did manage to take a few courses through the University of Maryland while she and her husband were stationed in Belgium, and, if things fall into place, she will only need one year to complete her associate's degree and move on to a four-year school.

"I don't have a lot of confidence in myself," she says. "I'm really petrified. It's almost like I have to prove to myself I can do this." She chose NOVA, she says, because "if I fail I haven't had to put out too much money."

One thing she likes about the place is that it is "accepting to anybody who wants to be here." But she is still getting used to the way that her instructors look at the gray-haired woman in the comfortable denim skirt perched in their classrooms.

"In my math class this morning, I felt like I made the instructor uncomfortable," she says. "Like she was checking in with her mother."

Sally's goal is to become a counselor. "I would like to do something in psychology to help people who have depression, especially young girls," she says. "I've done a lot of volunteer work, and I've seen the tremendous need for that."

She thinks she would be good at it. At least, her life experience suggests she would. "My children are independent and happy and well adjusted and doing well financially and making real contributions to society."

"But you can't do much with a bachelor's in psychology," she adds. And so her education odyssey will carry her into her sixties.

"I'd like to have a doctorate," she says.

Jim Naughton last wrote for the Magazine about public higher education in Maryland and Virginia. He'll be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.