Joseph E. Gann loves maps. He has drawn them since he was 5. For the past two years, he has studied geography at Essex Community College and he will receive his associate's degree today. And this fall, with hundreds of other community college graduates, the 19-year-old Essex man will head to Towson State University to pursue his education.
"I had already planned on using Essex as a steppingstone and going on to university," Mr. Gann said. For him, attending a community college served as "a transition from high school to university. It prepares you."
Often lost in the commencement clamor each spring is the graduation of students from Maryland's 18 community colleges -- although those schools enroll half of Maryland's 168,000 college students and award nearly 8,000 associate's degrees a year. The students do not graduate as a class. Many attend part time or in nondegree programs.
Historically the majority of students at community colleges enrolled in two-year career programs rather than using the schools to do half the work toward a four-year degree. But despite inconclusive statistics, many educators believe that now more students, such as Mr. Gann, are drawn by low cost and convenience to the two-year schools intending to transfer to a university.
Last fall, for example, 1,120 Maryland community college students enrolled at University of Maryland College Park, more than half of all transfer students; while 771 students enrolled at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, about 60 percent of all transfer students.
"Anecdotally, there's some evidence that more students are going to community colleges and then going on to [four-year] schools," said Judith S. Eaton, director of the Council on Aid to Education in New York City. "I don't think we know very much about what is actually happening. Community colleges ask a lot of questions about intent or goals. But the community college population is probably least able to answer those questions. A lot of people are exploring."
Mr. Gann is one of those people. He flirted with engineering before focusing on his childhood love of cartography as a profession, and he hopes to secure a job after school designing road maps. An honors student who had to work hard for his grades -- he raised his marks in English from a C to an A in his first two terms at Essex -- Mr. Gann said he chose the community college because of its low tuition and its location near his home. He was able to commute by bus to school and still find time to work two jobs to pay for his courses.
Community colleges also attract older students. A little more than 20 percent of all Maryland community college students are 30 to 39; another 17 percent are older than 39.
Community college offered a perfect entrance into the world of scholarship for Shannon Snyder of Eldersburg, a 39-year-old gymnastics coach.
When Ms. Snyder married in 1980, she put her education on hold while she and her husband raised three children. Martin Snyder attended law school and is practicing law in Frederick.
Now, she said, "It's my turn." Last month, she graduated from Carroll Community College.
When previously at school, she had dabbled in animal sciences and thought about becoming a veterinarian. These days, Ms. Snyder is keen on the prospect of teaching English. She has written papers on French writer Albert Camus, loves philosophy and the study of virtue. USA Today named her to its team of All-American community college students, and she delivered an address at her commencement.
None of this could have occurred without the support of her children, Ms. Snyder said, although she added: "Sometimes they're a little frustrated with it when they want my attention, and I'm glued to a computer or a book."
Her 3.5 grade point average has led to an $11,000 annual scholarship toward a bachelor's degree at Western Maryland College in Westminster. She said she's had some difficulty transferring her credits, a process that some students complain hinders their efforts to switch schools.
Maryland public university officials downplay the problems associated with transferring (formally called articulation), but the Maryland Higher Education Commission prodded top academic administrators to hammer out an agreement during the past year. They have agreed to accept certain core courses from any other college. Every campus sets its own requirements for the number of courses and credits required to receive a degree.
"When you get to a commencement ceremony and a student walks across the stage and gets a diploma, the faculty sitting there watching the ceremony have to believe something real has happened," said Daniel Fallon, provost at the University of Maryland College Park. "That will mean the faculty will have long discussions to devise general education requirements. It's the element that defines what the core of education at that institution is."
Horror stories occur, he said, in which cooking courses at trade schools get counted toward nutrition curricula at community colleges, and then students expect them to be applied toward their bachelor's degree at a university. But that sort of situation is an exception rather than a rule, Dr. Fallon said.
"There comes a point at which you ought to take the courses without question out of respect for the faculty" of the community colleges, he said.
Jo Ann Argersinger, provost at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that transferring credits is not a major problem. "There are only about five or six courses in the state of Maryland that we do not accept," she said.
At Maryland's private colleges, the transfer of credits can be a challenge, too. Hood College recently signed an agreement with Essex Community College assuring that the process would be easier.
But while Ms. Snyder had trouble receiving full acknowledgment of the honors seminars she took at Carroll County Community College, all the hassle is more than worth it, she said recently. For her, graduating from community college is "one small step."
"I wanted to return to school -- to go to college, and to teach," she said. "It's just something that I always wanted to do."