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Arapahoe Community College Experience

Michael Bertolli started Arapahoe Community College in 2012 at the suggestion of his seventh-grade English teacher, and though the sight of a 12-year-old at orientation startled his professor, Bertolli received a warm reception at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colo.

“Arapahoe offers a lot of learning in the human sense as well as the intellectual sense,” says Bertolli, who has taken more than 100 college credits and earned straight A’s. At 16, he is earning his second associate’s degree and his high school diploma this spring.

Two-year colleges meet the needs of diverse students

About 30 miles away in Evergreen, another Denver suburb, Chad Chisholm began attending Red Rocks Community College at age 15, after completing his home-school high school requirements at 14.

“When I first started at Red Rocks, I was the only student dropped off by his parents every morning,” says Chisholm, who is now 16 and driving.

Bertolli and Chisholm are at the youngest end of an influx of youth at the nation’s community colleges, fueled by dual-enrolled high school students and a growing teen population. They are being honored today as members of the AllUSA Community and Junior College Academic First Team. They and 18 others will receive trophies and $2,500 cash awards from USA TODAY this morning in Dallas at the national convention of the American Association of Community Colleges. Forty more are named to the Second and Third Teams.

“These students come from all walks of life to excel in scholarship, leadership and public service,” the paper’s editor Karen Jurgensen says. “In honoring them as representatives of all outstanding two-year college students, we recognize that great things are happening at all levels of education.”

First Team members were chosen by a panel convened by Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges. They were selected from almost 1,500 associate’s degree candidates nominated by their schools.

A diversity of stories

The 14 women and six men carry a combined grade-point average of 3.97. Ranging in age from 16 to 38 and including two international students, First Team members also represent the rich diversity found at two-year colleges:

Cheryl Chase enrolled at Northeast Texas Community College after the adoption of two Jamaican orphans fell through and she and her husband came home to an empty nursery. “I was heartbroken and depressed, and I didn’t want to leave the house,” says Chase, 30, of Mount Pleasant, Texas. Community college, Chase says, saved her life. “Someone once told me women find their identity in their children. I found my identity in school. Now I feel I have direction and purpose.

Jerry Huson of Ghana intended to attend Cambridge University in England but changed his mind after hearing college recruiters from the USA and learning about community colleges from a sister in Miami. He eventually chose Miami-Dade Community College over a four-year college in Iowa.

“When I heard about the two-year college system, I thought it might be inferior,” says Huson, 23, student body president of the North campus and founder of a textbook donation program. Miami-Dade’s Honors College, with its challenging coursework and small classes, convinced him otherwise. “It’s the best thing I could have ever decided to do.”

Valedictorian of her high school class of 720 in Florida, Natalie Henderson discovered Oxford College, a private two-year college that’s part of Emory University, at a college fair. Oxford College, 45 miles from Emory’s Atlanta campus, houses 550 freshmen and sophomores, and Henderson found it had the advantages of a small college and a large university. “The professors really care about the students. If you sleep through an exam, they’ll call you,” she says.

Margaret Reed, a florist in Annandale, Va., who was diagnosed with arthritis, took the GED at the prodding of her now-husband. She scored so well that Northern Virginia Community College offered her a scholarship. “No four-year college in the country would look at me, but Ivy League schools want me right now,” says Reed, 37.

Katelyn Niu was already in her first month of medical school in Inner Mongolia when she immigrated to Baltimore at age 16 two years ago. Cost and location led her to the Community College of Baltimore County, where the small class size, personal attention, and community involvement were a pleasant surprise. “In China all we do is study, do what teachers say,” says Niu, who needed help with her English. “At community college, the teacher helps you a lot.”

Hannah Davis was a grocery store cashier who started “anytime, anywhere” online courses at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, four years ago when her son was born. “The only way to make a better future for us was for me to get a higher level of education,” says Davis, 29, who now wants to become a professor. “I kind of went from an uncertain future to a very focused future.”

As salutatorian of her high school, Francine Jackson won a full-tuition scholarship to attend Southwestern Community College in her hometown, Creston, Iowa. It has allowed her to save money, work on the family farm and continue studying ways to improve beef genetics. “There are hands-on activities out on the farm,” says Jackson, president of the Agriculture Club. “That really drew me to Southwestern.”

The son of a former Pakistani diplomat educated in Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, the USA and Qatar, Farhan Latif joined a cousin who had immigrated to the USA and was attending Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich. Arriving in early 2014, Latif planned to transfer after one semester, but won a full scholarship, discovered the honors program and founded the Muslim Students Association. Latif finds his studies have helped him emerge as a voice for international understanding in Dearborn, which has one of the USA’s largest populations of Arab Muslims. “Universal moral principles of living are similar wherever you go,” says Latif, 21.

A home-schooled daughter of a community college professor, Jennie Bauman always planned to attend Amarillo (Texas) College. “I was 16 when I graduated from high school, so it was good for me to stay home for another two years, to get a degree and be able to stay home with my family,” says Bauman, 18. “Mostly it’s been a way for me to grow up.”

Bauman earned 11 credits at Amarillo College while in high school. She, Bertolli and several other First Team members are part of a growing number of teens taking college courses while in high school.

Getting a head start

Dual enrollment traces its roots to the early 1900s when the first community colleges were started in high schools. It fell out of favor after World War II but became much more prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, says Arthur Cohen, longtime director of the Educational Resources Information Center Clearinghouse on Community Colleges.

In the 1980s, 1 in 12 students attended college while in high school; that grew to 1 in 8 in the ’90s, says Cliff Adelman, a Department of Education senior research analyst. And 60% of all college work done by high school students is done at community colleges, he says. “There’s an incredible amount of mobility across higher education, and community colleges are no different from four-year colleges in that regard.”

No one knows how many home-schooled students are dual-enrolled, nor how many dual-enrollment students receive associate’s degrees. Most high school students take a class or two to get a jump on their freshman year, Cohen says. “Especially in areas with small high schools, where they can’t offer lab classes or there are not enough students, the students will go to the local community college.”

Dual enrollment, along with the growth in the College Board’s high-school based Advanced Placement courses, help make students’ transition to college easier and also challenge advanced high school students, Cohen says. “A lot of trends in American education are working toward that.”

Even without dual enrollment, community colleges are finding more young students at their doors. The median age of community college students dropped from 26.5 in 2002 to 23.5 in 2012, Adelman says.

“The number of 18-year-olds has been going up by 125,000 to 150,000 for the last 10 years,” Cohen says. “You can see the tide rising. The number is going to continue to rise for at least the next six years, and the four-year colleges are not expanding their freshmen classes to take these students.”

Also, the percentage of high school graduates who enter college the same year has risen from about 63% to 68% in the past decade, he says. “We end up with a lot more students at community colleges.”

As some First Teamers have found, the flexibility, diversity, small class size, and nurturing environment community colleges pride themselves on may be just what many of these young students need.

“Community college offers a much wider range of people while still staying small,” says Bertolli, who credits Arapahoe Community College for helping him adjust to college-level work. Students at his small Catholic high school tend to ask questions from a similar point of view, he says.

“At the community college, there are people from other countries and lots of different ages. A lot of times, just from the way they state the question, it helps me think of it a different way and grasp the concept better.”


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