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Community Colleges Are Portals to New Career Paths

When student James Valinoti was checking out nursing programs, his list included Duke and Johns Hopkins universities and the University of Pennsylvania. As a lawyer who earned his MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was well aware of how diplomas from prestigious schools could help land good jobs, especially when changing careers. He eventually enrolled in a program in which he hopes to become a registered nurse by December 2008.

Where is he studying? At a community college.

“If I didn’t think I could get work after graduation, I wouldn’t be here,” says Valinoti, who’s attending Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

Indeed, growing numbers of people like him with bachelor’s and even advanced degrees are using two-year colleges as a form of graduate school. It defies the stereotype of community college as a place of last resort, and counters the norm of the first-time college students earning an associate degree and then transferring to a four-year institution.

“These are very impressive students,” says Bob Miller, chairman of the counseling department at Mission College in northern California. “They’re coming back to school with definite goals in mind, not pressured by parents, not looking for a social scene.”

For the experienced, returning student, the appeal of a community college is wide. Tuition is a fraction of what they would pay at universities. Academic programs that the students enroll in typically boast high placement rates into living-wage jobs after only a year or two, compared to the longer path at universities. And community colleges are so numerous and conveniently located that some students work full time while enrolled.

The range of academic programs attracting university graduates is also wide. Educators say the most common include nursing, graphic arts, paralegal, fire safety and home remodeling and repairs — all fields in which it would be difficult to outsource work overseas yet fields in which workers are currently in high demand.

Nationally, about 8 percent of community college students hold at least a bachelor’s, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Statistics on this generally aren’t collected at individual schools. Educators say the students holding bachelor’s are back in school for a variety of reasons.

Some haven’t found jobs in the field in which they were educated, or they’re dissatisfied with their jobs. Others have worked for many years in one field and want to try something new. Still others have lost their jobs to layoffs and consolidations in today’s harsh merger-acquisition climate.

Arlynne Wolf, an instructor who created the kitchen and bath design program at Century College near St. Paul, Minn., says many of her students are over 30, own homes and have already done a remodeling “that they really enjoyed and made them think they want to do it full time.”

Since the first class enrolled in 2002, Wolf, in addition to teaching students holding bachelor’s, has taught at least one Ph.D. and several students with master’s in fields including health management, national security and other disciplines. Most of her graduates have found jobs earning $15 to $25 an hour, and wages often double or triple in a few years, depending on the employer, which might include builders, remodelers and do-it-yourself stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot.

At Bunker Hill, returning students such as Valinoti can be found not only in nursing, but also in other health care programs, such as cardiac sonography and medical imaging.

Roxanne Mihal, dean of nurse education and health professions, counts former engineers, business owners and flight attendants among her students.

A lot of people are leaving high-demand professions for something more personally rewarding,” she says.

Student Rosanne Hebert expects to earn certification as a phlebotomy technician by next spring from Bunker Hill. She hopes to then enroll in a nursing program while working at a health care facility. Hebert, 49, has been interested in nursing more than half her life but began gravitating toward it while at Episcopal Divinity School studying for her master’s, which she earned in 2005. During her studies, she did chaplaincy work at hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities, dealing with patients as varied as the terminally ill, accident victims and survivors of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

“When a person’s arm is falling off, it would be nice to do more than just pray with them,” says Hebert, who has also served as an Air Force sergeant in Korea, and since then, performed as a jazz pianist for 10 years all over the country and in Japan.

Valinoti, 43, says he, too, felt nursing would be “a fabulous fit” for him after a high-pressure legal career in insurance defense, immigration and business. He also worked as a financial advisor before earning his MBA. “I like helping people, and even though I’ve done it as a lawyer, I’ll be doing it on a more intimate level as a registered nurse,” he says.

Educators say that, anecdotally, students who have attended community college as a so-called graduate school generally have high satisfaction in their new careers. For instance, among orthotic and prosthetic technicians, the retention rate is more than 90 percent nationally, says Edward Haddon, director of Century College’s orthotics and prosthetics program for more than a decade.

He estimates that about 60 percent of students enrolled in the technician programs there already have earned their bachelor’s. Technicians assist orthotists and prosthetists in caring for people who either have a disabled limb or have lost a limb.

“We have engineers, we have fine arts, we have a lot of people who come from nonhealth care fields,” he says. “There’s been lots of interest in our programs with so many veterans returning from Iraq. People want to use their artistic and mechanical abilities to help veterans.”

Income doesn’t hurt their motivation either. With five years of experience, technicians are typically earning more than $20 an hour, according to the American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association.

Some of these returning students are such attractive job candidates that they are recruited away even before graduation, educators say.

“Of course, we try to discourage them from leaving early,” says Dr. Bogusia Wojciechowska, interim dean of professional studies at Bunker Hill. “But it’s difficult. It’s very tempting to leave if the job offer is lucrative, and it often is.”

She and other Bunker Hill officials are also seeing growing numbers of bachelor’s degree-holding students enrolling there in criminal justice, biotechnology and early childhood education.

The Changing Role Of Community Colleges

Today, the nation’s 1,195 community colleges enroll 6.6 million for-credit students, according to the AACC. For minorities, they have become arguably the most accessible portal into higher education. Among all undergraduates in the country, 57 percent of American Indian undergraduates and 55 percent of Hispanics are at community colleges, while 47 percent each of Black and Asian undergraduates attend community colleges.

Yet two-year schools have taken on other roles over the years. Honors programs have expanded. Deals have been inked with four-year schools, including Ivy Leagues, giving community college graduates scholarships and entry into those schools. The introduction and mushrooming of dual enrollment programs that let high school students enroll concurrently in college have yielded graduates who might not otherwise have considered college in the first place. Some community colleges have even started offering bachelor’s degrees.

Sometimes, such changes have occurred amid controversy and concern over whether, in the process, community colleges have shortchanged their core students — those with limited options for higher learning. And a similar sort of soul-searching among educators is occurring as more students enroll in community colleges as a form of grad school.

In some programs, students with bachelor’s or higher degrees are competing with 18- and 20-year-old first-time students for limited class slots. While community colleges everywhere have open admissions policies, some classes are capped to ensure a small student-faculty ratio as well as ample resources, supplies, lab materials and individualized attention for students.

For instance, Mission College enrolls only 60 students into its licensed vocational nursing program each academic year out of more than 200 applicants. That enrollment cap can favor those who have studied premed, pre-dental or other hard sciences at four-year schools, Miller says. “The most qualified are accepted, and if there’s just one position left, it tends to go to someone highly educated,” he says.

Adds Janice Bonanno, Bunker Hill’s dean of student affairs, “The pressure is on us. We added evening and weekend programs partly because of this, but there is no easy answer.” What educators agree on, though, is that more students such as Hebert and Valinoti will enroll at community colleges.

For Valinoti, the choice became clear when he realized his tuition at Bunker Hill would run only $5,500, while Johns Hopkins, Duke and others would cost $40,000 or more. He had never even heard of Bunker Hill until one day at MIT, while being treated at the student health center, he mentioned his interest in nursing to a staff member. “I found out pretty quickly it doesn’t matter where I get my R.N.,” he says. “And for me, it really is about the quickest way and the most cost-effective way.”

–Lydia Lum

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