It's still possible to consider taking the serious step of going to college this fall. For building academic confidence, developing vocational skills for the job market, dabbling in art, music, literature, photography or a myriad of other subjects -- for simply trying out the educational waters -- there really is no better place than your local community college. It will welcome you with the proverbial open arms and won't sock you with an astronomical bill, either

Community colleges are "the best buy" in higher education today and "the best faculty do the teaching," claims Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges (AACJC). They "offer people tremendous new opportunities they would not otherwise have," he goes on. "So our slogan is 'Opportunity with excellence.' "

High-powered colleges get all the media attention, and many people still wonder what goes on at "that campus down the road." Still, students have discovered the benefits of attending community colleges: About 55 percent of first-time freshmen enroll in two-year community and junior colleges, and nearly 40 percent of all college students are attending them.

Last year approximately 5 million students took credit courses, representing 41 percent of all undergraduate students. An equal number took noncredit courses. Projections are for community colleges to maintain their place as the largest single component in higher education.

These numbers suggest a dramatic story of growth, but the human story is the evolution of attitudes toward education and the changing needs of society. The community college has simultaneously reflected and shaped these developments.

Not long ago, most students fit the image of the traditional college student as one between 18 and 22 years old, living at school and studying full time. Today's freshmen are as likely to be middle-aged business execs updating skills or "returning" women starting a college education or senior citizens taking an art course for fun.

To serve the mushrooming student body, the number of community colleges has grown from 553 in 1937, when they enrolled 136,623 students, to 1,224 in 1987 -- one-third of all American colleges.

Community colleges in the Washington area are typical: Although the District has no public community college, the University of the District of Columbia is considering the possibility of making one part of its system. Suburban Maryland and Virginia, on the other hand, have flourishing and highly respected community colleges.

"Maryland and Virginia schools are coming on like gangbusters in quality and enrollment," says Parnell. "Virginia grew 7 percent last year." In fact, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) has just overtaken Miami-Dade Community College in Florida to become the largest multi-campus community college in the United States, with an enrollment of more than 59,000 in credit classes alone.

Arthur Cohen, director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges, praises the five-campus institution for its responsiveness to the population in a high-growth area. He is equally enthusiastic about Montgomery College, with three campuses in Maryland, which he says is "considered high up in the barrel and has always been forward-looking in attracting returning women and in its academic support services."

A picture of community college offerings in the last few years emerges from statistics in The Collegiate Function of Community Colleges, an about-to-be-published work by Arthur M. Cohen and Florence B. Brawer. In 1986 English, mathematics, history, biology, chemistry, psychology, economics and sociology were offered in 90 percent of the institutions. The importance of math and writing skills for success in college is underscored by the fact that math and English composition made up 41 percent of all liberal arts classes offered. In addition, 87 percent of the colleges offered literature; 86 percent political science; 70-79 percent, foreign languages, philosophy, art history, engineering and earth sciences; 50-59 percent, music history and appreciation, agriculture and social sciences; 48 percent, cultural anthropology.

Although most classes are about to begin, registrations are still open, making it possible for procrastinators to "try on college." Gail Forman is a professor at Montgomery Community College, Rockville.