Transfer student Quinn Stewart

Quinn Stewart, 20, who is currently attending Howard County Community College, plans to transfer soon to Towson University to study international relations. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun / October 20, 2011)

When Luke Fisher of Westminster graduated from high school five years ago, he had doubts that he could excel at a four-year school. He turned down an offer to attend Towson University and opted instead for Carroll Community College.

Fisher would become editor of the campus newspaper and a peer mentor for first-year college students. He is set to graduate this spring with an associate's degree, and plans now to pursue his bachelor's degree. He's found a couple of area schools — including the University of Maryland and Hood College — that appear particularly eager to have him.

"Their transfer advisers went above and beyond trying to get me to visit their campuses," said Fisher.

He's confident that such attention will lead to acceptance — and he's not alone. Increasingly, four-year colleges are setting their sights on the growing talent pool at community colleges, as those schools have become attractive, less-expensive options for students during the economic downturn.

More students are using two-year schools to bolster their credentials — and statistics show they are more likely to transfer to four-year programs.

Nationally, community college enrollment has increased by more than 20 percent over the last three years, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. In Maryland, 9,702 students transferred from the state's two-year schools to its four-year schools during the academic year that ended in 2009, according to the state Higher Education Commission. That's up from 7,902 students four years earlier — a 23 percent increase.

"We have some very ambitious statewide goals for college completion," said Danette Howard, the state's interim secretary for higher education. She pointed to Gov. Martin O'Malley's goal that at least 55 percent of the state's residents between ages 25 and 64 will hold at least one college degree by 2025.

"To meet that goal we have to serve our transfer student population."

Students who have attended two-year institutions say their experiences have defied expectations about college life.

"Most of my friends, more than 30, go to community colleges. I never would have thought that coming out of high school," said Howard Community College student Quinn Stewart of Baltimore, who will transfer to Towson after graduating this fall.

Stewart considered a West Coast arts college while in high school, but decided to enroll at HCC as an international studies major while taking math and science courses that she needed. She plans to continue her major at Towson.

School officials have eased the way by strengthening agreements on transferring credits from two- to four-year programs.

"There are more students going to community colleges, and we are now accepting more of those students," said Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He and other four-year college officials say their schools are offering more financial assistance to community college students — particularly those who have excelled in two-year programs.

UMBC also offers discounts to community college graduates.

"The students who are best have completed their [Associate of Arts] degree," Hrabowski said. "They have a sense of completion. They understand a great deal about college-level teaching and responsibilities of college students, and they are typically quite mature."

Samantha Solovieff of Annapolis is slated to graduate from Anne Arundel Community College in December. She is waiting to learn if she's been accepted to a four-year school.

The former student association president has her sights on College Park. She says she came away from meetings with representatives from that school believing that they were impressed with her leadership experience.

"I definitely feel wanted at Maryland; I pretty much feel like I'm expected to get in," Solovieff said. "There's no question of it, because of how much they've been involved with [AACC]. I'm not bragging or anything, but I feel like as an institution they want me, and that's a nice feeling to have."

Local community colleges say more four-year schools are sending representatives to their transfer days, at which students are given information and help moving from one school to the next.