In the heat of a concrete-surfaced courtyard, a handful of students study for final exams. It is not a place to breed nostalgia and there is little time to ponder the pain of parting. No college fraternity, no alumnae association, will bind them together in later years. There will be no yearbook to rekindle memories.
Some of these Prince George's Community College students, armed with two-year associate of arts degrees, will begin their junior year at four-year colleges and universities in the fall. Many more will begin new jobs with newly acquired skills, and others will keep working at jobs they never left when they went to college.
"I never have time to participate" in extracurricular activities, says 21-year-old Laurelei Trammell, who was studying algebra. She is working for an AA degree and has a full-time job as a waitress in Greenbelt.
Eula Ann McKenzie, 49, who works full time as a psychiatric nurse, takes a full course load at Largo and has a straight-A average, says she leads "a solitary life, but it's the life I choose."
These are not the salad days for most of the 20,000 students at this commuter college. Their average age is 28 and only 41 percent are working toward degrees. About 35 percent are enrolled in "career" programs in health, business or science and technology fields, and another 25 percent or so are taking noncredit courses either for "personal enrichment" or because they are job-related. Most are part-time students, and when they drive away from the Largo campus, they return to jobs and families.
They are drawn to the college by the vast range of courses, the small classes, the amazing accessibilty--classes are taught in more than 40 locations in the county in addition to the main campus in Largo. But most of all, they are drawn by the cost: $87, including student fees, for a typical three-credit course.
The number of students working toward AA degrees has been falling, and the number of part-time students has increased. Women now make up 54 percent of the student body. When the college opened in 1958 with an enrollment of 185, most students were fresh from high school and were trying to work their way into a four-year institution.
Now Prince George's college seeks to attract a cross-section of the community and, anxious to maintain high enrollment levels upon which state funding is calculated, offers courses in what the students seem to want, from Intermediate Accounting to Belly Dancing, Archery and Clawhammer Banjo I.
College administrators speak frequently of "marketing" and "demand." The 1980-1985 Master Plan calls for programs designed to "respond to enrollment trends," to "increase the full-time enrollment" by attracting recent high-school graduates and to retain those who come. It recommends use of extension centers and cable television "as a vehicle for delivery of instruction."
Community colleges "have a real impact," says Dean of Students Ernest R. Leach. "You are on the cutting edge of what people want. There's a kind of pioneer spirit in the community college. We are not encumbered with the load of tradition that the four-year colleges have."
The Prince George's college places a premium on convenience and efficiency. Registration, done by computer, "is like getting an airline ticket," Leach says. Traditional methods may suffice at a traditional college, but "adults won't take that kind of harassment," he adds.
Leach speaks proudly of his institution's "ability to respond quickly" to changing demand. The four-year university is "entrenched in its own inertia. Here, if we find a need for a course at Oxon Hill, we can have that course this fall." Already the college offers courses in shopping centers: "The shop and learn concept," Leach calls it.
This diversity, and the fact that students spend so little time on campus, makes it difficult to organize recreational and social activities.
"Nothing fits everybody," says Jay H. Boyer, director of college activities. "At a four-year institution you are dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds. It's easy to deal with that: You know what your population is like. . . . With a population like ours, the same thing that interests an 18-year-old isn't going to interest a 58-year-old. It just makes it more and more difficult."
Recent student elections attracted almost 1,400 voters from an electorate of more than 20,000. At that, it was a better turnout than last year's 300 and more than double the previous record of 500.
Boyer and student leaders say they try to make participation as convenient as possible. There are 50 college-sponsored clubs and it's easy to start a new one: All you need are two students and a staff adviser. A few years ago the staff adviser to the Ham Radio Club was a college janitor.
Clubs can get lists of potential members from the college computer, which stores the information registering students fill in on long questionnaires about their interests and personal characteristics.
Student identification numbers are recorded at every event, from dances to evening drinking bouts in the on-campus Agora Pub. The numbers are fed into the computer and the next day organizers receive a breakdown, by age, sex, race and marital status, among other things, of the students who were there.
County School Board member Jo Ann Bell, a part-time student working toward an education degree, calls the college a "really neat environment. This year in my biology class I have three students whose parents are teachers in the system. There are a lot of kids from my community who I know."
Recently elected Student Association President Jim Walker, a Vietnam veteran, says he was "kind of apprehensive" when he started school last year.
"I was 32 and was thinking of all those high school kids. But in over half the classes there were students in their late 20s or 30s, and four or five students in each of the classes have been 40 or 50 or better."
But Eula Ann McKenzie, who says returning to school helped her overcome "a middle-age crisis" after her children left home, says that although she enjoys the younger students, "it's kind of hard to relate to them emotionally."
Courses are often harder than students expect. Says Joe Gaines, 19, who graduated from Oxon Hill Senior High last year, "I thought it would be easy. I heard it was an easy school. . . . I was a slacker in high school. I came here and did the same thing and failed my first test. That shook me out of it. I never studied in high school. Now I do."
Of the students who enrolled in September, only 68 percent remain. Of students studying in AA degree programs, 71 percent remain, but only 43 percent of those with undeclared majors are still there.
"We do serve a high-risk population," Leach says. "If we were as selective as Johns Hopkins, we'd have a higher success rate."
The college has an "open-door" policy, and all students with a high-school diploma or GED are eligible for credit courses. This gives gives the college a large population from which to draw its students. But according to some faculty members, the quest for efficient management sometimes seems more important than educational and intellectual goals.
When it comes to this subject, ceramics instructor John Krumrein, who has taught for 10 years at the college, is an outspoken critic of college administrators.
"There seems to be more emphasis on budgetary issues, in terms of what kinds of materialistic things can be done here, as opposed to dealing with educational issues," he complains.
Krumrein says there is constant pressure on faculty to prevent students from dropping out, with administrators warning that teachers' jobs are at risk if enrollment falls. At curriculum committee meetings, he claims, more attention is paid to courses designed to attract students "than courses requested for educational merits."
Chemistry instructor Patricia Cuniff is head of the Faculty Senate, which represents the teaching staff. She says students and teachers are attracted by small classes that allow individual attention. The standards are high, she says, and science laboratories are better-equipped than those of many universities.
Yet there is a conflict of "monetary management versus intellectual strength" in the administration's relationship with the teaching staff, she says. She notes that faculty members can take leave to work on projects specifically related to in-class teaching, but not for honing academic skills, doing research and keeping abreast of advances in their specialties.
A faculty survey two years ago revealed "there was concern that the leadership of the institution was more concerned about management, and not as concerned about intellectual standards," said Bob Hardwick, assistant to the president.
"In the last two years, we've tried to refocus, in every way we could, on quality," he said. A task force was established to see if the college's educational goals "were meaningful," he said, and "starting this fall, we're examining, course by course, to see if we're achieving intellectually what we want to do."
Maintaining high full-time enrollment is a major concern but doesn't supersede educational goals, he argues.
"Our whole financial support . . . is predicated on the number of full-time students: the more the better. In that sense there is pressure to maintain a large contingent of full-time students. On the other hand, we've been successful enough in managing the institution that we have really not had the kinds of pressure other institutions have had."
The college is directing many of its efforts to attracting students just out of high school ("Those students tend to produce the most money, quite frankly," Hardwick says), and in the last three years the percentage of county high school graduates going on to the community college has risen from 16 to 19 percent. For the last three years, the college has offered scholarships to one student from every public and private high school in the county.
The drawing card most often cited by students interviewed was low cost. A student must pay nearly $700 for each of the two years required for an AA degree. When money from county and state governments is added, however, the total cost of educating a student is $2,426. More than a quarter of the students receive grants ranging from about $200 to $675 a year; a total of $2 million in basic grants is distributed each year.
At the University of Maryland in College Park, the average education cost for each student (including more expensive graduate students) is $5,041. Next year the typical undergraduate will pay $1,720 in tuition and fees, however. But the students are paying for different things. Virtually all instructors have PhDs, for instance, says university spokeswoman Stephanie Bobrowsky. Professors are expected to do research and publish scholarly papers. Prince George's Community College instructors, of whom 31 percent have PhDs, are paid simply to teach well.
With anticipated cutbacks in college loans and high unemployment, community college administrators say they expect enrollment to remain high, with students avoiding higher university tuition costs or seeking new job skills.
As the needs and desires of students change, so too will the ever-flexible community college. It has the ability, says Leach, to thrive when the economy turns sour and in times of social upheaval.
"I see the 1980s as being a tremendous opportunity," he says. "I don't think we've had an opportunity like this since the riots in the '60s."