My daughter's graduation from Reed College took place on the spacious lawn in front of the campus's Gothic dormitories. It rained a little, but the conservatively dressed, affluent, well-spoken parents looked cheerful as they gathered under a large tent at the small, elite college in Portland, Ore. We compared notes about where we were from, the schools our other children were attending, the plans of the graduates (which all seemed to have a luminous vagueness that drew us together in sympathetic anxiety), and whether it would rain more. At last, to the tunes of a small chorus, the procession began, and the excited faces that we had watched grow from brainy adolescence to this moment of success passed by us. The speeches began. The president of the college told the graduates that they would never again be part of such a community of like-minded souls, that they would never again share such a happy conjunction of intellectual and social life. Now it was time to devote themselves to grand works of peace and equality.

Equality. Well, I sat up.

I teach English at Northern Virginia Community College, the second-largest community college in the nation and one of the most ethnically diverse. NOVA's graduations are held in the Patriot Center at George Mason University, but apart from the setting, the ceremony is much the same as the one at my daughter's expensive liberal arts college. There is a song by the chorus -- only NOVA's chorus is better. There's a parade of the faculty in academic regalia, looking a little sheepish but wonderfully medieval, and then a parade of graduates -- only NOVA's graduate parade is much longer. After some nice speeches that everyone hopes won't be too long, the names of the graduates are read out, and the president shakes every hand -- only at NOVA, this takes an hour and a half, and includes much mispronunciation. There's a cheer for each student -- only in NOVA's case, the cheers are much louder. Sometimes the NOVA graduate is the first family member to attend college, or the first to achieve higher education in the United States, and the graduate's relatives, dressed to the teeth, gripping the thin edge of success with hopeful hearts, let out a whoop to set your ears ringing. Sometimes the graduates cry. Sometimes I cry.

What does it mean to go to college? Are the diplomas NOVA hands out comparable to the ones that were handed out at my daughter's college? Do they represent, in any sense, the same educational experience or the same academic credentials? What did we buy, when we paid $30,000 a year, when our daughter could have attended community college for a year and gotten the same 30 credits for $2,000?

Our child's college education was sterling. Her papers were read by perceptive and responsive readers. Her classes were small, her teachers were articulate, her classmates were smart and sophisticated; she was surrounded by creativity of all sorts. She got to leave home, to develop passionate friendships, to engage in argument with marvelously thoughtful and well informed people. If she was not quite sure what to do with her degree in English literature, that was only because her education was in no way "vocational." What she got was a world of luxurious thinking that had nothing to do with job training -- and was therefore training for the very best jobs. In due time, she and many of her classmates will go to graduate school, art school, law school or medical school, and they will be, mostly, healthy, wealthy and wise.

How different is the community college experience? The disparities are vast. For starters, our operating budget at NOVA is much, much lower. We have computers and a pretty campus, but our classrooms are drab. Clocks fall off our walls; heating and cooling systems fail; the staff is overworked.

We're fine teachers, but we teach many more students. A typical English teacher at NOVA has 125 to 135 students a semester, which is almost triple the number per teacher at Reed. For better and worse, we're not intellectuals actively engaged in scholarly pursuits. Our students don't get to leave home and are not isolated from the cares of the world -- they have jobs, children, parents, car trouble; they have to make their meals and pay their bills and haul out their trash. They have almost no time or opportunity for community with one another. They differ in nationality, age, educational goals.

We teach only two years of college. If you were to take one of our sophomores and look at his or her academic work, and look at the sophomore work of my daughter's classmates, the differences would be huge. The Reed students read 10 times as much, and they read original texts by thinkers and scholars, ancient and modern.

Community college students usually read magazine articles and textbooks, summaries of the works by the thinkers and scholars. The Reed students write better; not that their writing doesn't have sins, but the sins are different. They can be verbose, stuffy, sometimes disorganized. But their expression is richly textured, subtle, even occasionally original. Almost all community college students, on the other hand, have at least a few problems with grammar, which get in the way. They tend to write simple sentences in order to avoid mistakes, and thus do not express their most subtle thoughts. Their vocabularies are more limited, and their thinking strives for the dogmatically conventional. Their most earnest question about an assignment is usually, "I don't understand exactly what you want." These aren't necessarily differences in intelligence. They are the differences in the students' experiences and how they have been taught.

Some community college students, of course, are the equals of students anywhere, and many will continue on to four-year schools. Our transfers thrive. Students from NOVA go all over the state and even the country, especially those from our honors program. Our current president is a community college product, and our alumni increasingly show up in all walks of life. NOVA and other community colleges are one of the great bargains in American education.

From time to time, we're visited by recruiting teams looking for transfers. There's a group from Smith, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley that regularly comes looking for our best "returning women," to whom they sometimes offer full scholarships. One year I had my heart set on getting one of those scholarships for a smart, engaged, hardworking grandmother. She'd been driving a big truck with her boyfriend, but now she wanted certification as a teacher. She was shy, at bottom, and I had to push her to go to the recruiting session. The recruiters warned that, even with scholarships, the students might have to do some work to make ends meet.

"How much?" she asked.

"Well, five or six hours a week is common."

I watched her face. Only five or six hours? In Virginia, she took care of grandchildren and a household, went to school full time, worked 30 hours as a teacher's aide. She looked at me and started to cry, and then she was embarrassed and beat her fist on the table and said: "I never in my life expected to be offered an opportunity like this one! If America isn't the greatest country in the world, I want to hear someone say it. Just come over here and try saying that to me!"

At Smith, as at most elite colleges, most of the students are young and single. They often believe that they are at these places because they deserve to be, because they "got in." And to an extent, of course, that's true, and some have overcome significant hardships to get there. Certainly, by no means are all of them from wealthy families; there are scholarships and loans and student work programs, and some families sacrifice greatly.

Nevertheless, if you were to put it the opposite way and ask me why one goes to community college, the answer might be educational for many of my daughter's classmates. You go to community college because you are an ambitious kid whose parents don't have professional jobs. Because you are a girl in a family whose culture for thousands of years has valued education only for boys. Because you come from a family that never really thought about college for anyone, never saved for it or steered you toward it. You go to community college because you had a significant trauma during your adolescence: Perhaps you had an alcoholic parent, lost a sibling, lived in a household of chronic anger, suffered from depression or anorexia, did too many drugs. So you failed some of your high school courses, and the "good" colleges won't take you. You go to community college because you were born in another country and came to America too late to pick up English very easily. Because you landed a good job or gave birth to a beautiful baby right out of high school, and didn't look back for 10 or 15 years, when, suddenly, you thought about college. You go to community college because you have a learning disability, undiagnosed or untreated, that pushed you to the sidelines in school. Because you started at a four-year school and discovered that you weren't ready to leave home. And you go to community college because you believe that America is a society where intelligence is rewarded, and since you're such a fine, intelligent person, it's unnecessary for you to actually do any homework in high school, and suddenly you have a C average and your SATs are pretty good but, frankly, so are a lot of other people's, and the best offer you got from four-year colleges was their wait list.

These are my students, and I try to give them an education, as I understand education. Like a lot of community college teachers, I had the elite version, and I carry certain academic ideas into my English classroom. You need to write well because you need to think well. You should create a picture of the past and the present, through disciplines like literature and history, sociology and biology, and you should come to an understanding that these are pictures, not truths, and learn to be flexible and yet to respect evidence. The student who begins the year saying, "Oh no, community college," has frequently been caught saying, at the end of it, "Thank you, that was great."

"See," I muse to myself at the end of my daughter's graduation, "you can get an excellent education at a community college. In fact, maybe we didn't need to spend so . . ."

"Yes, you did," says another voice in my head. "The differences are vast, and the world isn't fair, and when you had a chance to buy this experience for your daughter, you didn't even hesitate."

Yes, it's a great country, as one of my Chinese students kept reminding me last spring. She was in a remedial class, struggling with English verbs and idiom, not to mention the strange customs of American essay writing. But she worked valiantly, and on the last day she came to thank me.

"You very smart, Dr. Sharpe, you have PhD. You work hard."

"Yes, well, I had a lot of advantages to start with," I murmured.

A shadow crossed her face. "No, you work very hard. That's why you have PhD."

I suppose I did. And my daughter worked hard, and all the kids at her elite, expensive college worked hard. They worked hard in high school to get in, and they worked even harder to pass their rigorous courses. They, too, struggled with life's difficulties, with divorced parents and depression -- even, a few, with being far from home and in another country. They deserved our celebration of their success.

But as I wandered among the radiant Reed grads sipping champagne and nibbling strawberries, I reminded myself that there are others who also work hard, and get less reward. Community colleges have done more to provide opportunity and second chances to immigrants and underachievers and working-class families than any other institutions I know of. I just wish it were an equal education.

Susan Sharpe has taught at Northern Virginia Community College for 30 years. She lives in Arlington.