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The Washington Post

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Spotli= ght on Community Colleges

By Jay Mathews

Washington<= /span> Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 5, 2005; 11:06 AM

Karen Davis= grew up poor in Appalachia and married at age= 16. She wanted to go college, she said, but "my husband didn't want me sma= rter than he and his income kept me from getting financial aid to attend."<= o:p>

"Six y= ears later," she said, "we had a son and two years later I was divorce= d, without child support and a teacher's aide job that paid $3.30 an hour.&quo= t;

 There was, however, hope for her, at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro, Ohio, just a few miles away. Davis was among 600 people who emailed me stories about community colleges after I wrote a column six weeks ago confessing my ignorance about them, and wondering if they des= erve more attention than they are getting.

In the narr= ow, somewhat goofy way we self-important journalists define news, there wasn't = much to report in this deluge of heartfelt messages. Community college are not getting as much funding as they need, but that is true for many worthy government endeavors. Connections with four-year colleges could be better. Students need more support.

But those e= mails revealed something that I think is worth front page treatment. Community colleges are having an extraordinary effect on American lives, rescuing peo= ple like Davis from difficult personal and financial situations again and again. They are educa= ting 46 percent of the undergraduates in the country, and luring back into the w= orld of learning millions of people whom our public schools have failed. Let me = tell some of their stories, while I try to figure out why such important stories= are so unlikely to make news simply because there are so many of them.

Davis said she was terrified to start co= llege while trying to raise a child and keep a job. "My self-esteem was non-existent," she said. "My grammar, to quote my English profess= or, Mr. Ed Daniels, was 'atrocious.' " The coll= ege taught her what it called MUGS (Mechanics, Usage, Grammar and Sentence Structure) of writing, and dispensed daily words of encouragement. Daniel's lectures on Shakespeare "had a profound effect on this country girl,&q= uot; she said. He would correct her grammar: "I had used the word 'had' and therefore I had 'gone' not 'went' to the store."

"I lea= rned a lot during hallway conversations with professors," she said. "At = the four-year institution that conversational style of learning did not take pl= ace. That kind of true personal interest in me did not take place."

In my earli= er column, I described U.S. Education Department senior researcher Clifford Adelman's new report on community colleges, with a new nomenclature of four-year drop-ins (regular college students who take commu= nity college courses in the summer), swirlers (stude= nts who go back and forth between four-year and two-year schools) and reverse transfers (students who start in four-year schools but move to two-year pro= grams.) Many emailers saw themselves in those categorie= s, plus some that Adelman had not mentioned.<= /o:p>

Anna Howe s= aid she got a degree from the University of California-Santa Cruz in a subject = that quickly lost her interest, so she decided to pursue her love of architectur= e at a community college. She found an architectural drafting class full of stud= ents who were "making their own way, working nights, odd jobs, getting loan= s, all with the dream of being an architect."

Emily Sommer said she was a classic reverse transfer. She s= tarted at Kent <= st1:PlaceName w:st=3D"on">State University, a four-year school, but found it torture to sit in class and listen to professors talk, after eight years of being home-schoo= led and learning things on her own. "I transferred to Hocking College [in Nelsonville, Ohio]--a very hands-on, technical school," she said. "For the past three years, I have been learning the way I learn best---by going out in the worl= d, seeing and doing stuff, not just hearing about it." She has been to the Teton Wilderness Area, Andr= os Island in the Bahamas, several towns in Peru and is heading for the Haliburton Forest in Canada, all part of her studi= es. She will be attending a four-year school to get a degree in elementary education or natural resources, but "I don't have the slightest idea w= here I would be without Hockin= g College."=

Henry B. Villareal, dean of enrollment services at the College of San Mateo= (Calif.), where my brother worked for two decades, described his doctoral research on= the progress of seven Latino students. All eventually earned bachelor's degrees= in business, but started at two-year schools because they could afford it and because they needed remedial courses. They praised the small classes and friendly treatment at the community colleges, and contrasted that with the large, impersonal universities they transferred to. They survived to gradua= te, they said, because of the self-confidence and academic skills they had acqu= ired in two-year schools.

Spotli= ght on Community Colleges

* Stephen Anderson was admitted to both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,= one of the nation's top engineering schools, and Lake Land College, his local community colle= ge. When he discovered that community college students who transferred to UIUC = on average earned higher grade-point averages than students that started at the four-year school, he chose LLC. "I've traded off a $45,000 price tag f= or the first two years at UIUC for the cost of gas to get me to school each day," he said.

* Victor P.= Zabielski, assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community = College, said he is finding many doctorates who want to t= each rather than worry about publishing papers and are filling community college faculties. "Of the last three hires here in my department," he sa= id, "all have Ph.D.s, myself from Brown University, another from Johns Hopkins, and the third from the University of California--Davis.

* Christoph= er McNally, a tenured associate professor of automotive technologies at a community college in New York, warned me not to overlook the two-year stude= nts who are getting vocational degrees and have no use for a four-year school. "I have many twenty-something former students with annual salaries far exceeding my own," he said.

* Teresa Mo= nroe of Amsterdam, N.Y.<= /st1:State>, said her son as a high school senior took all of his courses at a local community college and started Binghamton University the next= year as a sophomore. The use of two-year schools to invigorate the high school year= s is growing, and some early college high school programs enroll high school jun= iors as college students.

As I said i= n my first column, it is hard to overlook the vibrancy of two-year schools, even= if they are ignored by elitist columnists like me. I was happy see one emailer confess the same fault. This was Clifton Trum= an Daniel, the public relations director for a community college in Chicago named aft= er his grandfather, President Harry S Truman.

Daniel said= he used to be a reporter and also ignored community colleges as uninteresting.= Now he wonders why he ever felt that way. At Truman College, he said, "I l= ike walking down the hall and hearing every language but English (more than 56 = are spoken here) and I like the fact that most people don't look or dress like = me (students come from more than 144 countries). Most of all, I like the sense= of optimism, of hope and possibilities. I know that exists at four-year school= s, too, but here it's different, more deeply felt. The opportunity to obtain an education is viewed as a gift."

That is the= way that single mother, Karen Davis, sees it, 19 years after she got her associate's degree at Southern State Community College. It was a hard time, particularly when she went to a four-year school, and beyond. "My fath= er did not speak to me for several years during and after obtaining my master's degree," she said. He told her she was getting "above my raising" and becoming an "educated idiot."=

But those attitudes will not survive into the next generation. The son she had to raise on her own also started college at Southern Stat= e, and he is now at Ohio University in Athens, seeking a degree in aviation management. He doesn't qualify for financial a= id because his mother is making too much money---she is the dean of instructio= n at Southern State--but she doesn't mind paying those bills.<= /p>

"I see it," she said, "as my way of repaying society for providing me wi= th the financial aid and convenient, affordable, quality education provided to= me through the humble beginnings of the community college."