Its five campuses dot a 1,304-square mile area of Northern Virginia stretching from the edge of Washington to the horsey suburbs, and its curriculum is almost as wide-ranging, from air conditioning to trigonometry to "understanding hockey."

For students fresh from high school, Northern Virginia Community College is a cheap, convenient way to cope with society's demand for a college degree.

For students fresh from high school, Northern Virginia Community College is a cheap, convenient way to cope with society's demand for a college degree.

For others, especially older students, the discovery of the college can be more dramatic - it is a place they can change their lives.

With an open door policy, lowcost tuition and myriad paths to financial assistance, the 11-year-old school offers equality of educational opportunity. It is a break that might not otherwise have come the way of the paroled federal prison inmate trying to get his life back on track the housewife emerging from 20 years of raising a large family or the Vietnamese emigre looking for a new career.

Since its opening in 1966 in a warehouse at Bailey's Crossroads with about 700 students, the school has grown to more than 30 times its original size. There were more than 26,000 students registered for credit last fall.

Housed on small campuses in Annandale, Alexandria, Loudoun, Manassas and Woodbridge, the school is larger in enrollment than many state universities. It is the largest instituion of higher education in Virginia and the fifth largest community college complex in the United States.

But a major difference is that many of the students at the two-year school are party-time.

"We have a drop-in, drop-out, drop-in, drop-out kind of program," said NoVa's president, Dr. Richard J. Ernst.

As colleges go, it is inexpensive - $8.50 per credit hour with a maximum fee of $100 for Virginia residents, compared to $108 per credit hour at Georgetown and $102 at George Washington University. Virtually anyone can get in, and NoVa offers a staggering array of courses that suggests something for everyone.

Students can take courses in analyzing financial statements, police organization and administration, drawing, biology, problem-solving in early childhood, trigonometry or principles of refrigeration and air conditioning.

On a more dilettantish level, students can study condominium purchase and ownership, developing self-worth, disco dancing, kung fu, transactional analysis and the art of motorcyle maintenance. This spring NoVa will offer a community service course called "Understanding Hockey" at its Woodbridge campus.

On a weekday, when the younger students have the place almost to themselves, the campuses don't look very different from a four-year school. The halls are filled with soft-faced boys with long hair and girls sitting cross-legged on the floor studying, half a mind on their books and half a mind on how cute they look.

But the average student age is 28 going on 29 (many of the older students attend at night), about 80 per cent of the students work and about 60 per cent of the enrollment is in occupation-related studies. The difference between NoVa and other colleges is even clearer in conversations with students. They have a strong sense of where they are going, and they want to get there fast.

A couple of themes are repeated over and over. The community college is the short, direct route to the types of work in which they are interested, and it emphasizes the practical rather than the theoretical side of education.

In fact, the college was established to be a technical school, although its offerings have been extended to include liberal and fine arts as well. "When the college grows from the smallest to the largest institution of higher education in 10 years, it tells you something about the need," said Ernst, president since 1968.

"At one time people thought of our institutions as junior colleges. We've grown out of that," he said. "As the need for technician level education has growth, people began to see community colleges as more comprehensive.

"Now we get all kinds of students - the best from high schools and also some of the poorest," he said. Many of the students already have degrees when they begin school at NoVa.

Ernst's salary has grown along with the school, from $20,000 when he came to NoVa from St. Petersburg, Fla. to $42,573 - not quite as much as the superintendent of the D.C. school system makes.

The facts and figures which describe the school are striking, but even more striking are the students and the stories of what the college means to them. These are some of their stories:

Ken Johnson of Falls Church, a student at the Annandale campus, came to NoVa not fresh out of high school, but fresh out of the federal penitentiary in Kentucky. In fact, it was the school's acceptance of his application that helped get him a parole, he said. Johnson, 21, went toprison when he was only 19, convicted of violating federal firearms laws for supplying another youth with gunpower. The gunpowder was for a bomb that allegedly was to have been planted under a police car in retaliation for the death of another Virginia youth who was found hanged in a Fairfax jail cell.

The boy who made the bomb, who was a juvenile, did not go to prison, Johnson said. Johnson, who was 19, was sentenced to six years, he said.

He was in prison for two years before his mother got him an application for the community college. "I was accepted, and presented that to the parole board, and they saw what I was trying to do," said Johnson, who was paroled in August, 1976. He hadn't planned to go to college when he left high school, he said.

"Once I got to prison I had a long time to think about where my life was going and what I wanted to do," said Johnson, who now is enrolled in NoVa's human services curriculum. "What I want to become is one of those people who help others before they get railroaded by the system," he said. "I want to help young people before they get jammed up.

"I really love going to college and working toward a career. They're really giving me a chance as long as I put in the effort," he said. "I lost time I'll never get back, but school is going to get it back for me," he said.

When Shirley Powers of Woodbridge started back to work and to school, she said she felt like Rip van Winkle, waking up after 20 years of raising seven children. "I felt like I'd been asleep for 20 years when I got back into the world," she said. "It's fascinating. I want to learn. I just want to learn."

Powers, a student on the Woodbridge campus, started work first out of economic necessity, she said. She hoped to free her husband, who works in air conditioning and refrigeration, from a second job so he could spend more time with their children. "I really wanted to have some type of career, to work until I retire," she said.

She found that a high school education was not enough to launch her, so for awhile she worked part time as an administrative aide at Ft. Belvoir and went to school.

"I was really playing a game of catch-up for all those years, trying to combine work experience and education," she said. Now she is studying full time for a two-year degree in business management and will continue as long as the money holds out.

"I would love to go to a university, but I couldn't afford it," she said. Even with NoVa's relatively low tuition, "it's been a sacrifice for the family."

On the otehr hand it has also been good for the family, she said. Because she is now going to school, she finds it easier to convince her children of the need for them to continue beyond high school. One son who didn't finish high school is taking courses in air conditioning and refrigeration and working with her husband. A daughter who is graduating from high school will also take courses there.Her husband is now interested in enrolling for classes, and Powers is even thinking of interesting her mother, who is in her 70's, in taking a course.

"The community college is sort of like a family," said Powers.

A middle-aged Vietnamese student on the Annandale campus is a former government official. He has been in the United States since 1975 and is taking a pre-engineering curriculum.

"It is cheap and close to my location," said the former official, who asked that his name not be used. "I can finish in short time. After I finish here, I can get a job easier," he said. "I can finish in short time. After I finish here, I can get a job easier," he said. "I can get a job in maybe one to two years."

He is working part time, he said, making toys out of his home in Northern Virginia. His background is not in engineering, but Vietnamese students find the math-related subjects easier to master than studies such as business or public administration, he said. "In engineering, you don't need much English."

Robert Thompson of Annandale started classes at the Annandale campus when he was just 17. He didn't know what he wanted to do, initially, but quickly moved into data processing.

Now, at 19, he is assistant data base administrator in finance and accounting for the Honeywell Corp., a job he got through the school. Honeywell has agreed to pay his tuition to American University while he pursues his bachelor's and master's degrees, he said.

When he graduated from high school, he and his father discussed his going to the University of Tennessee but decided against it, he said. "It may sound silly, but I didn't want to leave home.

"Maybe I missed the football games, the parties and so forth," said Thompson. "My mom always tells me I'm going to work myself to death, but I like to work," he said.

Jackie Watson of Herndon, a student in the animal science program at the Loudoun campus, always wanted to work with animals, but she didn't want to be a veterinarian. She went to the University of Washington and spent a few years in the service without finding a career she liked as well.

Now, she said, exercising the dogs that the program uses for purposes such as making x-rays and blood tets, she has found a program that will take her into the type of job she wants.

With he training, she expects to be qualified to work as a veterinarian's assistant, a laboratory research technician in a zoo or in a number of other areas, she said. "I can't imagine having this type of experience anywhere else," she said, "where you come in, and work, and are really responsible for what you do."

Another compelling reason for attending NoVa is its cost, she said. "Labsolutely, literally could not afford to go to a four-year college," she said.

The community college," she said.

The community college system is "really gerat," she said because students launch right in to the subject that interests them. "You don't have to wait to your third or fourth year to take the specific classes that tell you whether you're interested in the field," she said.

"You don't waste your time and you don't waste your money."

Kitty Macario of Annandale is 52 now. She was 48, when she decided to go to college.

"I always wanted to go to college," she said. 'But first the war came along. Then a job came along. Then the children came along. When my youngest got to be 17, I said - 'It's my turn.'"

"I was scared to death," said Macario. She drove up and down Little River Turnpike, past the college's Annandale campus, before she could muster the courage to come in and sign up for classes.

"I want to be a counselor in some way," she said. "The only thing is the time. I don't have as much time as the younger students, but I feel like the school has added 10 years to my life."