OF THE MINORITY students who graduate from high school and go on to some kind of higher education, more than half enroll in two-year community colleges. Most community colleges have low tuition and open admissions; many are in or near inner cities and in other ways seem less intimidating than four-year, residential campuses for kids whose family background and high school preparation have made college an unlikely prospect. Two-year colleges are supposed to provide job training and, for the ambitious, a bridge to four-year institutions. More often they turn out to be overburdened and chaotic, stuck with the job of teaching students to read and write, and losing a high proportion of them along the way. Efforts to improve minority access to higher education have mostly overlooked both the plight and the potential of two-year schools. Now, with concern rising over how few minorities graduate from college, a group of urban community college heads have put out a useful report on their own efforts.

The new angle is badly needed. Despite vigorous affirmative action policies and aggressive recruiting, the four-year colleges are losing ground in their efforts to boost minority enrollment. A lower proportion of minority students graduate from high school than did a decade ago; a lower proportion of those graduates apply to colleges; a lower proportion of those who enroll complete their degrees. No one is quite sure why this is happening. What is clear is that just having a shot at college often isn't enough for students fighting the obstacles of inadequate preparation. What's needed is access with a reasonable likelihood of getting through.

Most of the colleges' own analyses of the problem focus on better preparation by and recruiting in the high schools and better counseling once students arrive on their campuses. But for too many kids, the inner-city high school and the high-tuition, four-year university are the top and bottom of a ladder on which there are no intermediate rungs. Even the best-prepared high school students tend to have some difficulties adjusting to college work and college life. The stretch for ghetto kids can be overwhelming.

The community colleges can provide some of those intermediate rungs -- if only the four-year schools enlist them actively in the struggle. The community colleges' report recommends better "articulation" -- reaching deeper into the public schools to link curriculum and match kids to programs -- and clearer transfer policies to steer successful students on to four-year degrees. It urges community support and describes successful cooperative efforts in Kansas City, Philadelphia and Baltimore, among other cities. Most important, it reminds that two-year programs are "the major points of entry" to our education system for immigrants and for workers who need retraining, as well as for minorities and the poor. For such people, they can provide a crucial way station in a journey that seems frighteningly long to those who have never made it.