At Dundalk Community College in the depressed eastern portion of Baltimore County, laid-off steelworkers are taking courses to prepare them for careers in office technology, accounting, computer drafting and electronics.

At Northern Virginia Community College, Arlington County's auto mechanics learn to repair county vehicles by taking automotive courses. And on the Largo campus of Prince George's Community College is a management institute that develops customized courses for business and industry.

Faced with declining enrollments, reduced public funds and competition from four-year schools that are vigorously recruiting students, two-year community colleges in recent years have become partners more frequently with government and industry -- to attract students and to promote the economic growth of their regions.

But educators say that the widespread success of job-related courses and business partnerships in community colleges has raised fundamental questions about the role of the two-year public institutions as places of higher learning.

"Community colleges tend to go where the action is, and business is calling the tune these days," said Alison Bernstein, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, which last year gave $1 million in grants to strengthen academic programs at five community colleges. "As long as they call themselves 'colleges,' the occupational training should have a sufficient level of 'college' education."

Educators and public officials today are wrangling over the mission of community colleges and are asking whether the colleges can continue to provide academic training for students interested in transferring to universities as well as vocational courses for students interested in preparing for jobs.

In an effort to redefine the community college mission, educators are grappling with three basic questions:

Are community colleges emphasizing career and job training programs to the exclusion of a traditional "collegiate" liberal arts education that includes the study of humanities, mathematics, science and languages?

Are they providing enough academic training for students who want to transfer to four-year institutions?

Are community college teachers doing a good job?

Community colleges have always responded to market demand. With students today placing less value on bachelor's degrees and more stock in educational programs that provide specific skills, and with businesses clamoring to have their employes trained for the information age, community colleges have increased their emphasis on vocational and business programs.

"Community colleges are moving towards course work that might have been considered nontraditional at one time," said James D. Tschechtelin, executive director of the Maryland State Board for Community Colleges. "There are more courses that are customized for business and industry."; Business Links Praised

Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, said the craze for partnerships with business should not interfere with academic programs at community colleges. If anything, he said, these partnerships have made community colleges the modern-day version of agriculture- and research-based state universities known as "land grants."

"What land grants did for agriculture, community colleges are doing for technology," Parnell said. "I see a similar thing happening with community colleges with a different part of the economy."

"Training is our business," he added. "We have succeeded beyond our dreams. There are whole industries that depend on us now. Where would hospitals be if colleges didn't offer the associate degree in nursing?"

New Jersey has a $90 million bond issue to establish a high-tech curriculum at community colleges, and Illinois has established a "corporate campus" to train corporate employes on site. Most states have followed the example of Tennessee, where Columbia State Technical Institute in Spring Hill will be responsible for coordinating all education and training for the new Saturn-GM plant.

But while the majority of community college presidents say that pairing with business is important for their institutions, some educators worry that the traditional collegiate education could become devalued in the process, particularly if community colleges become simply tools for business. Even students at community colleges complain that their schools are referred to as "Tinker Tech."

Fewer than 20 percent of those who enroll in community colleges complete associate degrees, and too few go on to four-year universities, according to some community college leaders.

Students who are not enrolled in degree programs are not required to take general education courses. Consequently, there is no way to ensure that nondegree students received a liberal arts-based education, some educators said. Narrow Class Choices

"Many students who come for occupational purposes are very pragmatic," said Maryland's Tschechtelin. "They are not coming for a degree. They are students who are purists. They take what they want -- technical subjects -- and they're gone."

Robert McCabe, president of Miami-Dade Community College in Florida, the nation's largest community college, said that academic and vocational training must go hand in hand.

"Equipping someone just for an occupation may be crippling," McCabe said. "They have to be able to grow and change. At Miami-Dade we hope we produce people who will have strong information skills and who will be strong learners -- people who will be able to live in the information age, change occupations if necessary and upgrade themselves as necessary."

A recent report submitted to the Ford Foundation suggested that community college students do not receive adequate grounding in academic skills and on average write only four or five times a semester.

"We should try to get more students to get degrees, and I think we need to work harder to get our students to transfer to four-year colleges and universities ," Parnell conceded, adding that community colleges "haven't been as careful we should have" in making sure that students leave with basic academic skills. "Some are ill prepared."

Still, some educators warned against confusing the mission of community colleges with that of traditional four-year universities, and they noted that students taking vocational courses at community colleges often have clearer goals and are higher achievers than college students studying the arts and sciences.

"I'm not sure the hallmark of an institution's success is whether the students go on to another institution," said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Community College of Philadelphia. "We're in part myth-bound. People out there say that having a strong transfer program is what makes you adequate. But we are not preparatory agencies in the traditional sense."

An increasing number of students -- about 75 percent -- go to community colleges part time, often to brush up on vocational skills or to take hobby courses, such as art, music or foreign languages.

Richard Richardson, a professor of higher education at Arizona State University, said community colleges are financially dependent on part-time students. But, said Richardson, "Very often the community colleges don't have time to assess part-time students enrolling in a single class. If you get 60 percent of the students in a single class . . . and they don't have the prerequisite skills, you're setting up the professor to fail."

Eaton said that community colleges should enforce more structure for part-time students as a way of ensuring that their education is broad based.

But Eaton, and some other community college leaders, said the colleges should not be measured by the number of students who proceed to four-year universities.

"Many students say when they enter that they want to transfer because that is what is socially desirable," she said. "Strengthening the transfer function is a plus, but I'm not sure we're doing a bad job. If we didn't have anyone transferring, then I'd be worried."

Mixed into the debate over academic standards at community colleges are questions about the caliber of teachers. At four-year universities, professors are expected to teach and publish to get tenure, but at community colleges, instructors are only expected to teach, and many do not have doctoral degrees.

"We attempt to employ people who enjoy teaching and are dedicated to teaching," said Richard J. Ernst, president of Northern Virginia, echoing other community college leaders.

Many community college instructors teach part time for little pay, usually occupational courses related to their professions. Some educators complain that these instructors are intellectually narrow and do not encourage students to pursue further academic study.

"I could have been a goofball off the street," said a former part-time instructor at Northern Virginia who now works for the District government. "They seemed very lax as far as hiring instructors."

Most distressing to some educators are results of a study submitted to the Ford Foundation in the spring that show that fewer than 20 percent of the instructors think that preparing students to transfer to four-year universities should be the top priority of community colleges. Teacher Quality Questioned

While most community college experts agree that the full-time faculty, who teach the bulk of liberal arts courses, are dedicated to teaching, there is dispute over how well they teach.

"History will judge us on whether we teach well or not," said J.F. Hockaday, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. "With the diverse group of students we get, we do the best teaching of anybody."

But Robert E. Parilla, president of Montgomery Community College, says that community college instructors should be given more incentive for research and scholarship to stay versed in their fields. Montgomery College has a program now in which faculty members are given support for scholarly and artistic work.

Whatever the experts say, many community college students seem satisfied with their instructors. "I haven't had anyone that has put me to sleep," said Lisa Holden, 20, a student at NOVA who is taking courses in chemistry and data processing. "I have had some really great teachers."

To strengthen the academic side of community colleges, the Ford Foundation picked five colleges, including Philadelphia and Miami-Dade, to share a $1 million grant to improve transfer programs for minority students.

Miami-Dade Community College has been singled out as the leader in integrating solid academic training throughout its curriculum. The college requires students to take courses in math and the humanities, to write in every course, and to pass 115 competency tests before they can advance, whether they are enrolled in academic or vocational programs.

Although it has 45,000 students on five campuses, Miami-Dade computerizes all its students' records and tracks their college careers. Every six weeks, instructors evaluate students' progress and file the data into the computer, which, sends letters to the students informing them of their status, suggesting counselors, and reminding them what credits they need to fulfill their requirements.

"If a student is not doing well, we restrict their load," said McCabe, the college president. "If they have got deficiencies, they have to face up to it and know they are not going to get through as quickly."

The result at Miami-Dade, which has a minority enrollment of 72 percent, is that more students get degrees and transfer to universities, and fewer drop out as a result of academic failures.

"There is a better feeling with everybody," said McCabe. "The students know it's demanding. They know we're asking a lot. They know they've earned it."

In Maryland and Virginia, where state commissions are redefining the mission of community colleges, education leaders seem wedded to preserving strong occupational and academic programs at community colleges.

Northern Virginia Community College, where data processing is the most popular program, has contracts with neighboring high-tech businesses, local county governments and even the Smithsonian Institution. It has a successful record of preparing students to transfer to four-year universities, particularly George Mason in Fairfax.

Montgomery Community College, which has campuses in Rockville, Takoma Park and Germantown and sends about 30 percent of its students to four-year schools, is one of three Maryland community colleges that provides special training programs under the federal job training partnership act.

"The community college is always going to be judged by its social utility," said Tschechtelin of Maryland. "People are always going to use us in ways that are appropriate to their lives."