Imagine for a hideous instant that you are Dean Wormer of Faber College (Motto: "Knowledge isgood"). In the early '60s you got the infamous "Animal House" fraternity closed down, but since then successes have been hard to come by.

Your football team, for example, has not won a gome since Pomfret forfeited to the junior varsity in 1973. The average number of students in the classics departnment classes has dipped for the 14th consecutive year to a record low of 3.14159. Two of your tenured English faculty have not been observed to speak or move for the past five semesters. The heating bill of the freshmam dormitory las winter was three times the size of your permanent endowment, and the board of trustees has just voted the fifth tuition increase in four years.

At an educational conference you find yourself seated next to a striking, angular woman in her mid-40s who introduces herself as Jean Netherton of Alexandria, Va. With a cyncial half-smile, you invite her to pool her misery with yours.

"How's business?" you ask.

No one would blame you if you went quietly home and put your head in the toaster-oven after hearing her answer.

"Sometimes I listen to my colleagues i the four-year institutions bemoaning what's happening in higher education," said Netherton, who is provost of the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College. "I say, 'How can you be so sorrowful when higher education is so exciting?' I feel sorry for them!"

Not that Neterton couldn't find something to complain about. Her institution has been cramped for space since the day it was born. A parsimonious state government has kept faculty salaries down nearly one-third below those paid in Maryland. Until recently, faculty members had to meet with students in the library; unitl this fall -- when it acquired a defunct elementary school nearby -- the campus had no auditorium.

But Netherton's problems are the curses of success. And while the Faber colleges of America have fallen on hard times, community colleges like "Nova," as its students and faculty call it, seemem to be something of a runaway success.

Sixteen years ago, Nova was one dean and a rented warehouse. Since then it has grown into the largest institution of higher education in Virginia. In the Washington area, it is barely surpassed by the University of Maryland at College Park. This fall, Nova enrolled a staggering 33,747 students -- up more than 7 percent over last year's enrollment -- in credit courses on its five modern campuses located in Alexandria, Annandale, Manassas, Loudoun and Woodbridge.

The community college is a revolutionary new patch in our crazy-quilt "system" of American higher education. At the apex of the educational pyramid, of course, are the plush academies that train the nation's elite -- the Harvards, Stanfords and MITs that produce the owners and operators of our economic system. Below them are the sprawling state universities and "land-grant" schools, which, with the hundreds of private colleges started by churches and private philanthropists, produce a middle-level elite. Now 4.5 million of the more than 11 million undergraduates enrolled in the nation's colleges are attending community colleges -- high-volume education factories that have been scorned even in the moment of their success as "high schools with ashtrays" an "turnpike techs."

The success or failure of community colleges concerns us all in a way that the life or death of a school like Bennington does not. Community colleges are an extension of the democratic ideal -- "open-door" schools, which offer a chance at college to anyone with a high-school diploma, regardless of grades or college board scores. Of necessity, they must teach many students whom the public elementary and high schools have not equipped with basic academic skills. While presidential commissions have debated the decline of literacy, community colleges have been forced to do something about it. And, in the rapidly changing job market of the 1980s, millions of people find themselves with obsolete job skills -- or no skills at all. Many of them look to community colleges as their chance for upward mobility.

Nova is full of strivers -- hard-working people who believe in the American dream. The question debated now for 20 years is whether community colleges can help make that dream reality.

The firs tpublic "junior college" opened its doors in 1901. But the explosion did not begin until the mid-'50s, when community after community decided that the two-year institutions were a cheap, efficient way to handle the massive number of "boom babies" beginning to pour out of high schools. Between 1960 and 1970, public two-year colleges were opening around the country at the impressive rate of one a week. This year, half of all freshmen nationwide were enrolled in community colleges.

Between 1970 and June 1979, meanwhile, 141 private colleges closed their doors, and many others were flirting with bankruptcy. The private college has all but priced itself out of the education market. Average tuition at a private four-year college was $5,330 last year. Bennington College in Vermont, a prestigious liberal arts college which is traditionally near the top in tuition, is charging $7,380 this fall (total fees, including room and board, are $9,430). And most experts agree that the cost will continue to rise.

Some of that cost comes from the oil shocks, which have made it expensive to run dormitories and dining halls, not to mention heating 100-year-old classroom buildings. Some comes from the cost of traditional activities such as football teams. Some comes from paying aging faculties protected by tenure, and some comes from maintaining departments like classics which are an important part of the traditional liberal education but which attract few students.

These problems are compounded by a sharp decline in the number of young people between the ages of 18 and 22 -- the group which provides full-time students for the traditional four-year college.

Nova has no dormitories or sports teams. Its faculty members are not tenured; full-time teachers have multi-year contracts, while part-timers have no job security at all. The administration -- under pressure from a notoriously tight-fisted state government -- eliminates programs that do not attract enrollment. And Nova, like community colleges around the country, has broken free of the demographic bind by moving aggressively to attract older students who work at jobs during the day. Nova offers courses at night, on weekends, in the early mornings, on military posts, in sewage-treatment plants, even at home. More than half of Nova's students are part-timers -- and the median age of its students has risen every year, to last year's high of 29.

"If we had to depend on recent high school graduatges for our enrollment, we would be a dying institution," said Richard Ernst, president of the five-campus college. "We need to provide for changing careers, changing goals. In my opinion, we can do that better than any other, because that's our mission."

The result is a kind of McDonald's of higher education -- fast, cheap and interchangeable. Each of the five campuses offers the same "core courses" -- English, math, science, business and so on. Each also has one or more specialized areas -- ranging from traditional "shop courses to sophisticated medical and technological job-training -- not duplicated at the others. Annandale, for example, has the nursing, dental hygiene and emergency medical technician programs, while Manassas offers programs in aviation technology and automotive body reconditioning. Students can thus take classes at their "home campus" and interchange them with specialized courses toward the two-year degree of their choice.

As with McDonald's, the price is right. A full-time student who is a Virginia resident pays only $114 per 10-week quarter; part-timers pay $9.50 per credit hour. A student attending George Mason University for two semesters would pay more than twice as much -- $888.

Nova students seem to be a particular breed, despite their diversity of backgrounds and ages, From the first day of their education, many of them seem to be looking ahead to their prospects in the economic jungle of the '80s. s

Nassim Nasr, an athletic-looking 19-year-old, was born in Brazil, but has lived in Lebanon and Cyprus before coming the United States in 1977. He graduated from T. C. Williams High School last year. He plans to get a degree in civil engineering from George Mason or the University of Virginia; but he's doing two years of engineering at Nova because, "They give more chances for foreigners here. The teachers give you more individual insturciton."

The Alexandria campus does specialize in teaching international students; many of its students are from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and the largest group of these are Indochinese refugees. The basement snack bar often looks like a junior United Nations. Nasr works three days a week at a local bakery, and alos helps his father, an Alexandria travel consultant. He plans to open his own engineering firm. "If you work in Saudi Arabia, you have more chance" to work three years there and then open my own office here."

Diane alden is a McLean housewife who graduated from Dennison University in 1957 with a degree in English. She stayed home to raise four children and now works as an assistant to State Sen. Clive L. DuVal (D-Fairfax). aShe's at Nova's annandale campus taking courses like "Fundamentals of Fashion" and Personnel Management" to train herself not just for a job, but for one specific job -- manager of a favorite chain clothing she hopes to will expand into the area soon. Many of her classes are at night, and she and her 17-year-old daughter, Jenny, are taking the same business math class this quarter. A son, T. R., is taking classes to prepare to transfer to a four-year college.

Alden has enjoyed herself, she said and made a few friends -- a woman planning to open a craft shop, a man who hoped to own a boarding stable. "I have noticed," she said wryly, "that during the breaks the young boys talk to my daughter and not to me."

Kerry Jenkins is 19. He graduated from Fauquier High School. "I ain't very good in English," he said. "I was good in history, but I don't want to be a history teacher. But I was good in math." So Jenkins has decided to be a computer programmer.

This quarter, Jenkins is trying to take care of what he dismisses as his "piddle classes" -- English, histroy and so on. He's taking "developmental English" to get him ready for the regular freshman English course. Jenkins has his troubles with English in high school. "The teacher I had in high school was trying to teach me college-level English," he said. "We didn't get along. I told her off, she told me off, and I told her what she could do with her class."

Jenkins misses the traditional college activities found at most four-year schools. When he and his friends want to dance, they do it in discos in Fairfax. "A lot of people say you should go to a four-year college and get more activities," he said. "But they don't have developmental programs -- they stick you right into college English."

When Carlyn Roman's marriage broke up after three children, the 37-year-old New Yorker picked Manassas off a map as her family's new home. "I wanted some place with grass and trees," she said. She found a job there as a teacher's aide. "Then I discovered I couldn't live on that money."

She had a two-year degree in anthropology from Hunter College in New York, but, "I couldn't really do much with it in this job market," she said. So she studied the market and decided not just to go to law school but to specialize in environmental law.

She moved to Triangle Va., to be near the Woodbridge campus, which has a two-year program in environmental science. When she finishes, she hopes to transfer to a state college like Mary Washington or George Mason and then to go to law school.

Marcia McGinty, a 27-year-old from Alexandria with blond hair and energetic good looks, goes to school in a veterinary hospital, complete with cats, dogs, cows and horses. She's in the animal technology program on the Loudoun campus. The program is designed to train students to work for veterinarians; it meets two days a week and offers classes in animal physiology and verterinary procedures.

McGinty reached that program after a long odyssey through American higher education. She started out as a music major at American University, then studied biology at George Mason. Then she began to wonder: "What am I going to do with a bachelor's degree in biology? I'm going to sit in a lab." She toyed with the idea of veterinary school. "But being a vt for me is pretty much of a deadend job."

The point of view violates the traditional view of education -- a means of getting a secure professional identity. But, like many other Nova students, McGinty is convicned the economic future belogs to those who mix formal education with marketable skills and an ability to foresee trends in the job market.

Right now she's working at a vet's in Alexandria; she plans to get her degree in animal technology, then finish her B.S. in biology. "[The animal technology degree] gives me an edge over the people with bachelor's degrees," she explains. "It'll give me an immediate job -- something that I like to do and don't mind working at 14-15 hours a day." Eventually, she hopes to find -- or create -- a job with a large stable or horsebreeding farm that maintains its own laboratory.

One of McGinty's sisters is a musician, then other is an artist. "Neither one wants to listen to me talk about what I do," she said. "I kind of looked down my at community colleges for a long time. But they are willing to acommodate themselves to people."

Whatever else it is, a community college is not a status institution. The mere name Harvard or Stanford on a diploma will open doors, but a Nova graduate must open those same doors with skill, determination and luck. A lively debate is raging in the academic world about whether community colleges like Nova really offer their students a realistic ladder up, or are simply a convenient device to offer the semblance of higher education without any real social mobility.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Burton Clark suggested that community colleges might be "cooling out" their students -- encouraging vocational programs that keep them at a lower level in society. A recent exponent of this theory is Jerome KARABEL OF THE huron Institute. "There is no question that for some people, community colleges are instruments of social mobility," he said recently. "But the argument is that the general tendency is to channel people into middle-level jobs, many of which they would have been eligible for had they not gone to community college."

Arguing the opposite point of view is Harvard sociolgist Daivd Reisman, who believes there is a "community college elite" who find the two-year schools a unique opportunity to begin an upward track through the educational world. The "elite" is made up of bright students who have little selfconfidence or experience with higher education, Riesman says. Many of the "elite," he says, are women who may have been out of school for years or decades raising children. The relatively easy course worlk at community colleges gives them a chance to paddle in the intellectual shallow water before striking out for the deep end at other schools. "In the jargon, they are being 'psyched up' rather than 'cooled out,'" he said.

The arguments about mobility may in part be based on obsolete assumptions. The shape of the future job market -- with its emerging gluts of doctors and lawyers -- may be quite different from the sunny one imagined by parents who have scrimped to send their children to "safe" professional schools. Who can say that the economic future does not belong to adaptable self-starters like Marcia McGinty. Not too long ago, after all, parents chivvied their children into education school with the cheery assurance that "no matter what, you can always teach."

In addition, community colleges in a sense represent a takeover by the state of an appreticeship process that was once carried out on the shop or factory floor. As careers become more complex -- and the competition for economic development between regions became more intense -- government felt the need to train its blue-collar work force for industry.

Nova students fall into three roughly equal groups. One-third of them are simply taking courses for their own personal use or amusement.

Another third are formally enrolled in vocational and technical programs like nursing, animal technology, waste-wter treatment, or law enforcement. These programs are designed to turn out employes ready to work; depending on your view of society, the might be viewed as apprenticeship programs, or as "cooling out" courses.

The last third are in transfer programs and are hoping to go on after their two years at Nova to finish a four-year degree -- the traditional route upward.

The most common destination is George Mason University in Fairfax, a new state university whose recent growth has paralleled Nova's. About 665 Nova transfers entered Gmu this fall -- one-fourth of all entering transfer students.

Clinton Blount Jr., director of admissions at Gmu, said he has no figures on how Nova students compare with the general student body. "My feeling is that community college students do as well as other transfer students," he said.

Whatever its effect on mobility, Nova has become a fixture on the Northern Virginia scene. Indeed, a survey by the college last year found that one out of every 4.4 adults in the area had taken some form of course -- credit or non-credit -- at Nova. College officials don't expect much more explosive growth. "We are going to retrain the growth we have and serve new constituencies," President Ernst said.

Sociologist Riesman foresees an educational future in mainly divided between community colleges and "flagship" schools, which prestige or high-cost professional programs. Examples would range from Harvard to the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

"Many people who cold aford to send their children to unselective private colleges or unselevtive regular universities are going to find that now young people can live at home as if it were a motel," he said. The only menaces to this sunny future, Riesman said, are a severe gasoline shortage curtailing commuting or a wave of "Proposition 13" tax cuts.

But now Nova staff members privately feel that the college faces more subtle threats. The wave of growth has crested, leaving Virginia's community college system to the mercies of the administration of Gov. John Dalton, which has recently announced its intentions to increase "productivity" at the schools.

In bookkeeping terms, Nova's faculty is already something of a bargain. The average full-time Nova teacher -- including all lelvels from instructor through full professor -- makes $17,437 for nine months of work. At Montgomery College, the comparable figure is $24,150; at Prince George's community College, it is $25,618. Teaching loads, meanwhile, are heavy: 15 creidt hours per quarter. Lab sessions count as a fraction of an hour, and some teachers spend as much as 29 hours a week in a classroom, plus a required 10 office hours.

Administrators justify the heavy course load by pointing out that community college teachers are not expected to do research or publish academic papers. But this "freedom" carries another danger. "There is not a lot of intelluctual stimulation or intellectual growth that you experience," said Barbara Wyles, an English professor who heads the college senate. "You are working a lot with students who are not high achievers."

One morning at the Manassas campus, I sat in on Pat Bizzaro's developmental English class. Bizzarro is a tall, muscular man with a genial face and a trim blond beard. At Miami of Ohio, he did his Ph.D. dissertation on Shelley. "I have never been near teaching a Shelly poem since I started teaching," he said, without visible regret.

Three mornings a week, Bizzarro teaches "Verbal Skills Laboratory," a course for students who placed too low on entrance tests to take standard freshman English. Bizzarro has done a lot of thinking about how to make the class fun; and he succeeds.

He began the day's class by forcing the dozen-odd students to "put your pen to the paper and keep writing for 10 minutes, whatever comes into your mind. I don't want you to worry about punctuation. I don't want you to worry about sentence construction. If you can do those things, fine. But just try to keep writing. If i see you stop, I'm going to come over and stomp on your big toe."

To overcome the class's fear of the assignment, Bizzarro uses a shill -- Stuart Werner, a Nova counselor who helps teach the class. During the assignment, Werner complains loudly about writer's cramp, about being tired, about being embarrassed. The other students, confident that their complaints are being voiced, relax and concentrate on the assignment. During the three-hour class, Bizzarro and Werner conduct exercises on gesturing and verbal intonation -- sending the students at one point into the snack bar to note how people use their hands in talking. Baizzarro lead a lively discussion of the difference between speaking and writing; and by the end of the session, he has taken a class that many students -- and teachers -- could look on as a kind of intellectual castor oil, and made it interesting and worthwhile. It's hard work. And it's work that our schools must learn to do. I felt a keen appreciation of Pat Bizzarro's task, because for one quarter a few years ago, I taught a creative writing class at another Virginia community college. I know just how wearing the feeling of 24 eyes can be over a three-hour session; indeed, in the end I was not up to it. When I was offered the chance to teach a developmental English class, I turned it down. Pat Bizzarro has accepted the challenge that I -- along with a lot of our schools and colleges -- have turned down. Indeed, he and Warner are currently trying to write up their methods and make them available to other developmental English teachers. "One of the biggest problems we have with these types of classes is ignorance of the students," he said recently. "There just hasn't been much research about this field." Bizzarro exemplifies the tightrope that the community college teacher must walk. A poet and scholar, he runs a program of reading and edits a literary magazine, The Manassas Review, which publishers criticism of contemprary American poetry. He also teaches creative writing at Nova. So while he tries to keep in touch with the top levels of his discipline, he must teach those at the bottom. It's a lot to ask of anyone. So far, Bizzarro hasn't gotten discouraged. "The common mistake about a community college is to think that we only get developmental students," he says. "That's false. The thing that makes us different is that we work with students. I'm trying to get everybody through every class."