Can't come up with the money for four years at a traditional college? What if you could take the same courses far more cheaply, experience life on a residential campus, and transfer smoothly after two years to complete your bachelor's degree at the university you thought you couldn't afford? That's the attraction of many community colleges.
While in high school in Lonaconing, Md., Chris Rumer had his sights on Penn State in atmospheric science. "Penn State is only 100 miles from home, and it's one of the top five schools in the field," says Rumer, now 24. "Why wouldn't I want to go?" But for financial reasons, Rumer chose instead to start in 2002 at Allegany College of Maryland in nearby Cumberland. Allegany returned the favor by sending him on to Penn State debt free.
Since 2000, Rumer and millions of other students have driven enrollment in public community colleges up 30 percent. Two-year schools governed by four-year institutions grew even faster.
Smooth transition. Community colleges teach many of the same subjects as universities but in smaller classes and without grad students to come between undergrads and their professors. More and more of them have streamlined transfers by reaching agreements with universities on which courses will count toward a bachelor's degree. In California, Florida, Arizona, Minnesota, Maryland, and North Carolina, students can find that information online. And hundreds of community colleges now have on-campus housing. More dorms and apartments spring up every year.
Potomac State College, located on the Potomac River in the center of Keyser, W.Va., represents the future of two-year schools as well as the past. The college was founded in 1901 as a preparatory branch of West Virginia University, 51 miles away. Its first residence hall was built in 1913. During the Great Depression, the college was nearly cut out of the state budget—until officials took notice of the fact that enrollment was going up, not down. Potomac became a full-fledged division of the university in 2005, offering two-year transfer programs and two bachelor's degrees. Two years ago, the college opened the $19 million University Place dorm with a fitness center, theater, cafeteria, and after-hours takeout counter.
From farm to agribusiness. For Ashley Kisamore, 19, finishing college quickly is her way of helping with the family finances. Her disabled father can no longer manage his livestock farm in Seneca Rocks, W.Va., without the help of his two daughters. Both women decided to start at Potomac State because it was cheaper than WVU (in-state students pay less than $4,000 a semester for tuition and room and board, compared with about $15,000 at WVU). Kisamore says she has twice taken an 18-hour course load; with some credits earned in high school, she can expect a hassle-free transfer and finish her agribusiness degree at WVU in just one year. She credits her living arrangement at Friend Hall for a share of her academic success. "It's almost all ag and forestry students," Kisamore says. "We take the same classes. Living together helps us form study groups."
A builder from childhood, Jordan Matijevich of Burgettstown, Pa., always wanted to study engineering and figured he would follow his sister, two brothers, and two cousins to WVU. Finances didn't figure prominently in Matijevich's choice, but "horrible SATs" prompted WVU's admissions office to refer him to Potomac State. A visit convinced him and his mom. "She liked the place, and she liked the idea I would be getting into WVU after two years," Matijevich says.
Potomac's out-of-state students pay more than $8,000 per semester for tuition, room, and board, compared with about $26,000 out of state at WVU. Matijevich's dorm assignment was an unexpected plus: a suite of two rooms shared with just one other student in plush University Place. He says he found his first-year classes relatively easy. "This year, though, I'm booked with work and being president of the engineering club," he says. He's not talking about wielding a gavel at meetings; the club's 30 members are building a giant catapult.
Matijevich and Kisamore stand a good chance of wearing a cap and gown at a future WVU commencement. A study of students who started two-year programs in 1995-96 found that 44 percent of those who declared a bachelor's degree to be their goal had completed the work in four years and an additional 38 percent were still enrolled, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. "Those who leave could have reasons, such as finances, or life itself may have intervened and they had to leave," says Brenda Thompson, assistant vice president for enrollment management at WVU. "Potomac State provides us with very good students."
Virginia Tech seeks out community college transfers to round out new freshman classes with women, older students, and those from low-income families. "Community colleges bring diversity," says Mildred Johnson, director of undergraduate admissions at the Blacksburg, Va., school. Virginia Tech helps transfer students flourish: Orientation lasts a day, and those needing extra help get it.
Nurturing community college transfer students may be especially important as states cut university funding or impose tuition increases, says Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center. The glum economy could freeze or shrink freshman classes despite a bumper crop of 18-year-olds in the pipeline. "For millions of students, community colleges are, in fact, the portal to higher education," Katsinas says.
Sunny side up. The Rumer family of Maryland testifies to this. In 2002, the mother, Annette Rumer, received a bachelor's from Frostburg State University two years after collecting an associate's degree from Allegany College of Maryland. The same year, her daughter, Sandi, graduated from Allegany with an associate's degree in human services, and her son, Chris, graduated from high school. As soon as Chris arrived on the Allegany campus, he sought out an adviser who would help him transfer to Penn State. Accepted into Penn State with a 3.7 grade-point average, Rumer moved confidently to the big leagues in 2005. He volunteered for the campus weather service, joined a severe-weather watch team, and interned at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. "I wouldn't say Penn State was scary. I was so busy. I was seeing my passion and my dream unfold before me," Rumer said.
Rumer received his bachelor's degree, with a 3.3 GPA, two years later. Now he works for an environmental consultant, Tetratech NUS, in Pittsburgh. Although his Penn State sheepskin left him $67,000 in debt, Rumer thinks his path helped him save money. "My friend on Long Island was in the same program as I was. He borrowed for 3½ years, and he's got $120,000 in debt."
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