Despite frequent prodding from her relatives, Charlene Kirby never dreamed of going to college. "I was sure I was a rotten student," she said.

But after marrying and serving in the Marine Corps, Kirby settled in Northern Virginia and decided to take a gamble. At age 33, she enrolled in English and psychology courses at Northern Virginia Community College. Now she is preparing to transfer to George Mason University for a bachelor's degree.

Kirby is one of 35,000 students, many of whom hardly fit the mold of the conventional college student, on NOVA's five campuses. Ren Jacoby, a retired military officer, returned to the classroom this fall to study Chinese after earning a degree 40 years ago. Doan Phuoc, 22, a Vietnamese immigrant and a Ramada Inn room service waiter, is an aspiring engineering student.

By offering an encylopedic list of courses -- ranging from truck driving to aviation technology, data processing to English literature -- community colleges have become the fastest growing segment of higher education in the nation. But today they are schools at a crossroads, facing problems that are sometimes obscured by the success of campuses like NOVA and students like Kirby.

After explosive growth in the 1960s and 1970s, declining enrollment in the 1980s has strained budgets, forcing community college officials to eliminate some programs and question whether they can continue to provide such a wide variety of courses. As the budget vise has tightened, tuitions in many states have increased dramatically.

Five years ago, for example, Kirby and her classmates at NOVA would have paid only $342 in annual tuition, compared with $900 this year. In Maryland, localities and the state continue to contribute a large share of the community college budget, but tuitions range from $660 to $1,050 annually for full-time students.

"Our system became too expensive for the consumer," said J.F. Hockaday, the chancellor of the Virginia system. "We've come close to pricing ourselves out of the common man's market."

This year, "comprehensive" two-year community colleges such as NOVA account for almost 75 percent of the 12 million students taking credit and noncredit courses in colleges and universities.

Only South Dakota and the District of Columbia do not have publicly financed community colleges.

"People are wondering aloud now whether the community college can be all things to all people," said K. Patricia Cross, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an authority on community colleges.

"It's not as easy to identify the mission of community colleges as it was in the 1960s, when the purpose was to open the doors to the unserved." Panels Scrutinize Schools

Virtually every community college system in the country today is under scrutiny by politicians and education leaders.

Maryland and Virginia have special commissions working on the future of their community colleges as they strive to cope with declining enrollments, higher tuitions and shrinking financial support.

For the first time, educators are being asked whether the taxpayers should continue to support colleges that provide a broad-based curriculum to students who pay far less tuition than students at traditional four-year colleges.

A report issued recently on Virginia's community colleges by the State Council of Higher Education described "a curriculum stretched too thin" and recommended that programs be tightened.

"We can't expand indiscriminately," said Judith S. Eaton, president of Community College of Philadelphia.

"We can't serve everyone who wants to be served . . . . Access is always limited because funds are not unlimited. That is a form of denying access."

The original mission of community colleges, which mushroomed during the civil rights era of the 1960s, was to come as close as possible to the ideal expressed by Thomas Jefferson: to provide inexpensive public higher education for everyone.

Programs were designed to be flexible enough to attract people who worked as well as those who had not mastered basic reading and writing skills. Courses were provided for students who wanted to ransfer to four-year institutions, to drop in for one course, to improve job skills or learn new careers.

In the Virginia community college system alone, the state now spends about $200 million a year so students can choose from thousands of courses, including a new course called "Nannies" to be offered next term at the Alexandria campus of NOVA to train students in home child care.

Unlike the traditional four-year colleges, where most students live on campus and go to classes full time, community colleges are bustling day and night with students who simultaneously juggle jobs, families, classes and study time. The atmosphere is often frenetic, as students rush from classes to jobs and back again. Traditional college activities such as football games, pep rallies, student government elections and drama clubs are invisible on many community college campuses.

"If I were going to the University of Maryland or American University , you can bet I would be at every game," said Angela Waters, the campus newspaper editor who, at 20, is significantly younger than most of her fellow students at Prince George's Community College in Largo. "I really miss the social activities. I miss that whole involvement."

But if there is less involvement in campus activities at community colleges, educators often note with admiration that their students, who at an average age of 29 sacrifice leisure time to go to school, are among the most determined in higher education. In many cases, the pressure is extreme.

Sheila King manages to work, bring up her 12-year-old daughter and take full-time classes as an English major at NOVA. Kathy Mullins, 22, a full-time bookkeeper at a service station, said she dropped two of three courses she began this fall at NOVA because her schedule "got too hectic."

"I really admired my students," said a former instructor at NOVA. "They would work all day and then spend three or four hours every night in classes. It was really something."

While some supporters have argued that diversity is the community college's greatest strength, it has, at times, proved to be a dangerous weakness.

This year in Wyoming, a state legislator was furious to learn that Laramie Community College was offering an extension course called "Fun With Jello." Although no public dollars were used, the course came to symbolize the fear of some that community colleges had abandoned serious academic and occupational training for frivolous programs. Something for Everyone

"We have a fuzzy image, and that is part of our problem," said Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, which represents 1,221 community and junior colleges. "We've made some of our own problems, with too much belly dancing and poodle grooming."

"They were trying to do anything that anybody wanted," said David W. Breneman, president of four-year Kalamazoo College in Michigan, who with Susan C. Nelson was criticized roundly by community college educators for a controversial book they wrote in 1981 predicting trouble for the community college system. "They were growing like Topsy. I felt that as things got tighter . . . they would get into trouble on that score."

Breneman's forecast has proved to be partly accurate. With enrollments declining because of the "baby bust," community colleges have had to raise tuitions and search for other revenues to make ends meet.

The financial pinch that started to emerge in the early 1980s already has had detrimental effects. In California, where local governments provided 80 percent of the funding for community colleges until Proposition 13 began eroding local property tax revenues in 1978, the system is "starving," according to one California educator.

Closer to home, J. Sargent Reynolds Community College in Richmond recently announced staff layoffs resulting from declining enrollments. Mountain Empire Community College in the coal-producing regions of Southwest Virginia lacks new equipment for programs in mining technology. Blue Ridge Community College in Weyer's Cave, Va., was unable to continue programs for the blind and disabled because there were no funds to replace a staff member.

But perhaps the most serious effect of the budget crunch has been a nationwide increase in tuitions. The $1.6 billion California system, once free to all students, began charging $100 for annual tuition last year.

As a result of higher tuitions, Hockaday and others said, more students enroll part time and fewer "graduate" -- that is, take enough courses to earn associate degrees. This fall, for the first time in four years, Virginia community colleges had an increase in the total number of students, but there was no significant rise in those enrolled full time.

Most students simply drop in for courses they need to advance careers, or they to transfer to four-year institutions before getting a degree from their community college, Hockaday said. In Maryland this fall, there were 237,261 registrations for noncredit courses but only 95,100 students taking courses for credit.

Although more than 50 percent of the nation's college freshmen and sophomores are enrolled in community colleges, only about 20 percent of them go on to finish bachelor's degrees, according to most educators.

Some educators, such as Robert McCabe, president of Miami-Dade Community College, said that the low transfer rate is particularly troubling because many minority students are enrolled in community colleges as a ticket out of poverty. If they do not succeed, McCabe and others said, they could end up as part of a permanent underclass in American society. Urban community colleges have minority enrollments of about 70 percent.

"Our students are taking the bare bones," Hockaday said. "Full-time students are becoming part-time students because of the costs. We have forced them to omit taking some courses."

The increase in part-time students -- who constitute about 75 percent of those enrolled in both Maryland and Virginia -- along with an increased emphasis on job-related courses, have renewed debate over whether community colleges provide a real "collegiate education."

Philadelphia's Eaton and some other administrators worry that there is "a strain of anti-intellectualism" in community colleges, the majority of which are run by administrators who do not have backgrounds in academe and who are focusing most of their attention on job training curriculums.

"In my view, occupational education without liberal arts and sciences and general education is 'training' and not 'education,' " Eaton said. "We have to take our academic commitment more seriously than we have." Competency Test Imposed

Added to the load of community colleges is a growing number of remedial courses for students -- many ill-prepared high school students and immigrants -- who cannot read and write or who lack basic academic skills.

"Remedial education is under attack as never before by legislators and some educators who deem it is not a legitimate function of collegiate education," said Harvard's Cross.

"There are those who argue that these people had their chance and blew it," Hockaday said. "But I remind you that education is the best way out of poverty."

To beef up academic standards, some states, including Florida, have imposed competency tests, and Florida and Georgia have required tests for all college students before they can advance to their junior years. At Miami-Dade Community College, the nation's largest, students are required to write at least 6,000 words per term.

"In the 1960s and 1970s we were concerned in community colleges about access, and we measured success in terms of numbers of students enrolled," said Richard Richardson, a professor of higher education at Arizona State University. "Now community colleges, like other segments of higher education, are not concerned solely with 'how many,' but with other results."

All of these issues have led educators, politicians and the public to reassess community colleges and the role of academic, occupational, hobby and remedial programs in them.

"At its root it's a philosophical question as a society," said James D. Tschechtelin, executive director of Maryland's State Board for Community Colleges. "Are we going to write people off or not? That is one of the things about our country. We don't write people off. Community colleges are a second chance."

NEXT: Liberal arts versus technology