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Degreed students learn community colleges' value


John W. Giles already had a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees and a Ph.D. in physics when he enrolled in school again.

This time, at a community college.

Looking for a back-up career, the Boonsboro resident studied computer programming - putting him in the growing ranks of community college students who are coming to class with degrees in hand.

Many assume that people who choose to attend community college go there first and move on to a university. But across the country, more students are trying education the other way around, prompted by the need for new skills or new careers.

"Community colleges are ... really becoming a 21st-century version of the graduate school," said Martha A. Smith, president of Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold. "More and more of the students coming to us have a baccalaureate, at least."

Nowadays, some fields of study - for instance, the Community College of Baltimore County's physician's assistant program - require a bachelor's degree for admission.

The American Association of Community Colleges estimates that 8 percent to 12 percent of community college students enrolled in for-credit classes already have advanced degrees. Students with degrees represent 28 percent of people taking noncredit courses such as skills development, according to a survey by the association.

Association officials said that statistics over time aren't available, but that they're sure the trend is increasing.

Studying technology

"Technology has a lot to do with it," said Norma Kent, the association's director of communications. "These days, technology is a pervasive part of every industry, and if an individual isn't familiar with it, they come back."

Community colleges look attractive to some adults with degrees for the same reasons that first-time college students enroll, administrators across the Baltimore metropolitan region said: The schools cost less, are nearby and offer flexible class times.

Lenny Mancini, dean of student services at Anne Arundel Community College, where 8 percent to 10 percent of people taking for-credit courses have post-secondary degrees, said these experienced students have different needs than first-timers. They aren't interested in extracurricular activities or college social life.

"They're looking for content," he said. "We have to make sure that it's current. They really expect cutting-edge."

Pondering a career change

Giles, a scientist with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, opted for community college when he thought a career change was inevitable.

He didn't have enough work to do in the submarine technology department. But information technology workers - the people programming and networking computers - were always in demand.

So he started with a continuing-education computer course at the Johns Hopkins University two years ago and - when Hopkins didn't offer the classes he wanted - switched to Frederick Community College to study C, a computer language.

Last fall, he took an advanced C course at Howard Community College, where about 15 percent of people taking for-credit classes had at least a bachelor's degree.

Giles, 55, who has two master's degrees and a doctorate in physics, said the two-year colleges' projects and tests demanded his full attention.

"Community college courses are very good - they're tough," he said.

He abandoned plans to switch careers when he transferred to APL's air-defense department this year - now he has plenty of work. But the computer classes benefited him anyway, he said. He's using his new knowledge on the job.

Bruce Lancaster, 49, of West Friendship also chose community college to study computer skills. It's the field he plans to enter when he retires from Howard County Fire and Rescue in three years.

Evening learning

He has taken courses for a year at the Howard campus and has passed an examination to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. He hopes to pass another certification test soon.

His accomplishments come after attending about 16 years of evening classes at Montgomery College (where he received a two-year degree in fire science), University of Maryland University College (for a four-year fire science degree) and a Central Michigan University program at Fort Meade, where he earned 24 credits toward a master's degree in public administration.

"It appears to me that the majority of people in the [HCC] classes are folks such as myself ... looking to change careers or do something different," Lancaster said.

Katherine Meehan, 33, a Columbia resident who has a master's degree in legal studies from the University of Baltimore, saw community college as a convenient way to start on a new path: teaching. She once planned to be a lawyer, but changed her mind.

Benefits of experience

She started taking classes at Howard Community College last fall, and thinks being an experienced college student has its benefits.

"You know what to expect, and you are more responsible," she said.

Roslyn Katz, 38, of Columbia, who is working toward a registered nursing license at Howard Community College, acknowledged being "an educational snob" about community colleges before she enrolled.

She has a bachelor's degree from American University and credits toward a master's degree, and she thought four-year colleges were superior. She planned to study nursing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

But a bad experience there - and a good one at the Howard school - changed her mind. Katz, director of customer service for Technology Information Corp., expects to be in the ranks of degreed community college students through 2002. "I really felt this is where I should be," she said. "This is where I belong."

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