- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

Emily Irish dreaded her first day at Montgomery College. The 26-year-old part-time massage therapist had heard plenty of negative comments about community colleges in general — the teaching was inferior at these two-year colleges, and their lesson plans required less study than at traditional schools.

Ms. Irish quickly found out otherwise.

Community, or junior colleges as they also are called, may get a bad rap, but they fill an important role in the bigger educational picture. These schools are typically thousands of dollars cheaper than their university big brothers and offer instruction that many will argue is equal to that of a standard four-year institution.

Locally, would-be students can choose from several community colleges, including Montgomery College, Northern Virginia Community College, Prince George’s County Community College, Anne Arundel Community College and Howard Community College.

Two-year colleges will never carry the clout of a Harvard or Yale, but that doesn’t diminish the schools’ worth in many people’s eyes.

Ms. Irish attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., after finishing high school but felt she wasn’t ready to commit to a specific program at the time. Instead, she moved back to the District, her hometown, and earned money by waiting tables and bartending. She also began studying massage therapy.

“Now I’m ready to go back to school. It’s the right time of my life,” says Ms. Irish, who attends Montgomery College’s Rockville campus. “Community college has allowed me a lot of flexibility in my schedule. I can still work when I’m going to school.”

Ms. Irish, who is studying Spanish as part of a broad education, says the community college experience offers other perks.

The four-year school she attended “felt like it was in a different universe,” she says. “There was a gate around the school. At Montgomery College, I feel like a part of the world. There are people with children, people just out of high school.”

The college suits her unique needs, but that isn’t to say the situation has been idyllic. She finds her fellow students too often treat the faculty with disdain. Some students interrupt their professors, she says; others let their cellular phones ring in class.

“It’s a distraction,” Miss Irish says.

The more dedicated students often use their community college days as a springboard toward a bachelor’s degree.

Tanisha Holland, associate director of transfer admissions for American University, says students can transfer their credits to many universities as long as the community college in question has met the right criteria.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers oversees colleges nationwide and determines whether a particular college deserves accreditation. If it does, most four-year colleges will accept its credits as part of a transfer, assuming the student earns a C grade or better, Mrs. Holland says.

Mrs. Holland acknowledges that students often look down at community colleges.

“The misconception is that you’re gonna go there and it’s a continuation of high school,” she says. “It’s comparable to the kind of course work at any general four-year institution.”

In Maryland, many community college students have their minds set on transferring to a four-year college.

In a 2001 survey of Maryland community college students who graduated in 2000, conducted by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, 33 percent of those surveyed said they would transfer to a four-year college, while 23 percent were satisfied earning a two-year degree or certificate.

At Anne Arundel Community College, 57 percent of currently enrolled students are on track to transfer to a four-year school once they complete the associate’s degree program. A recent survey showed that 11 percent of first-time full-time students will earn their associate’s degree in two years.

A national study of community college students taken in 1999-2000 by the American Association of Community Colleges showed that 21 percent of community college students intended to transfer to four-year schools, with an additional 24 percent taking the classes either for personal enrichment or for transfer purposes.

One reason community colleges work for students is that the colleges often have enough branches to be practical for commuters.

“In Virginia, the whole layout of community colleges was designed to make sure a college was within 50 miles of every residence,” says Hortense Hinton, acting vice president for academic and student services with Northern Virginia Community College.

Ms. Hinton says the stigma attached to community colleges is retreating, but it’s still a factor in some people’s minds.

“The myth comes from the open admissions,” she says. Our society equates a rigorous admissions policy with educational excellence, she adds. If you need a high score in the SAT to get in a program, then it’s assumed to be a more challenging school.

Community colleges in the past few years have helped some students retrain to position themselves better in a precarious job environment.

“In some of the [information technology] fields, you’re already degreed, but you want to brush up on the new software,” she says. “We’re very much affected by the work force and the marketplace.”

Walter A. Brown, assistant professor of higher education at George Washington University, contends that the role of today’s community college is more positive than some might think.

A few “perpetual” community college students, the kind who never seem to graduate, shouldn’t besmirch the role these colleges play. Four-year universities have their fair share of students who linger for years without ever donning their cap and gown, Mr. Brown says.

Opinions aside, educational levels boil down to the professors themselves, he says.

Mr. Brown says the objective of a community college professor differs from that of a university instructor. The latter often gears his or her attention to gaining tenure or having research published. For community college professors, he says, the emphasis leans more heavily on the teaching component.

Community colleges typically offer a mix of professors, including some who work in their respective field and teach on a part-time basis.

“I think nothing is lost between the two,” he says.

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