Plenty of people who in past years wouldn't have wondered are these days questioning the economic wisdom of four years at a traditional college. What if you could take the same courses 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 growing attraction of many community colleges.
Just ask Chris Rumer, a Pennsylvania State University grad who finished school with roughly half the debt load of a good Penn State friend. While in high school in Lonaconing, Md., he had his sights set on studying atmospheric science at Penn State, as it was "only 100 miles from home, and it's one of the top five schools in the field," says Rumer, now 26. But for financial reasons, Rumer started in 2002 at two-year Allegany College of Maryland in Cumberland. He then headed off to State College debt-free. Since 2000, Rumer and millions of other cost-conscious students have driven enrollment in public community colleges up about 30 percent. Two-year schools governed by four-year institutions grew even faster.
Several developments explain the trend, beyond cost and the fact that community colleges teach many of the same subjects and courses as universities. To improve college access, more and more of them in recent years have streamlined the transfer process by reaching agreements with universities specifying which courses will count toward a bachelor's degree and simplifying acceptance for respectable performers. And hundreds of community colleges now offer on-campus housing.
Potomac State College in Keyser, W.Va., represents the past and future of two-year schools. The college was founded in 1901 as a preparatory branch of West Virginia University, and its first residence hall was built in 1913. Potomac became a full-fledged division of the university in 2005, offering two-year transfer programs and two bachelor's degrees. Three years ago, the college opened the $19 million University Place dorm, which has a fitness center, theater, cafeteria, and after-hours takeout counter.
Ashley Kisamore, 20, credits her living arrangement at Potomac's Friend Hall for a share of her academic success there. "It's almost all ag and forestry students," Kisamore says. They took the same classes, and living together helped them form study groups, she says. For her, finishing college quickly is a 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 about $4,500 to $5,000 a semester for tuition and room and board, compared with about $6,500 per semester at WVU.) Kisamore says she twice took an 18-hour course load at Potomac State before transferring to the larger school; with some credits earned in high school, she plans to finish her agribusiness degree, after three semesters at WVU, in December.
Potomac's out-of-state students generally pay around $8,000 per semester for tuition and room and board, compared with about $12,000 for out-of-staters at WVU. Jordan Matijevich of Burgettstown, Pa., who always wanted to study engineering, was referred by WVU's admissions office to Potomac State thanks to his "horrible SATs." A visit convinced him and his mom that the move would be a good one. "She liked the place, and she liked the idea I would be getting into WVU after two years," Matijevich says. He says he found his first-year classes relatively easy. The next year, though, he was "booked with work and being president of the engineering club," he says. Matijevich's dorm assignment was an unexpected plus: a suite of two rooms shared with just one other student.
Four-year institutions have plenty of reason to welcome transfers from two-year programs. They're often serious and driven; despite any financial challenges, one study found that 44 percent of those who declared a bachelor's degree to be their goal had completed the work in four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And many colleges and universities, like Virginia Tech, seek out community college transfers to round out their classes. "Community colleges bring diversity," says Mildred Johnson, director of undergraduate admissions at the Blacksburg, Va., school. Virginia Tech helps transfer students flourish: Those needing extra help get it.
Nurturing community college transfer students may be especially important as states cut university funding and impose tuition increases, says Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center. "For millions of students, community colleges are, in fact, the portal to higher education," Katsinas says.
The Rumer family of Maryland testifies to this. Back in 2002, the year that Chris graduated from high school and started at Allegany College of Maryland, his mother, Annette Rumer, received a bachelor's from Frostburg State University, two years after earning an associate's degree from Allegany. Also in 2002, daughter Sandi got an Allegany associate's degree. Chris was later accepted into Penn State with a 3.7 grade point average. There, he volunteered for the campus weather service, joined a severe-weather watch team, and interned at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. "I was seeing my passion and my dream unfold before me," says Rumer, who now works for an environmental consultant in Pittsburgh. Although his Penn State sheepskin left him $67,000 in debt, Rumer knows his path helped him save money. "My friend on Long Island was in the same program as I was. He borrowed for 3½ years," Rumer recalls. That friend ended up owing $120,000.
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