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Consumer Reports

2-year colleges become more attractive | (KRT) BERGENFIELD, N.J. - Marie McCrary was a lackluster high school student. So when she decided to go to college, she was unsure of herself.

"I started out in remedial math courses and suddenly everything clicked," she said.

It sure did.

McCrary, of Bergenfield, N.J., who just aced Calculus III, delivered the valedictory address last week at Bergen Community College, as nearly 1,000 students graduated. She has a 4.0 grade-point average and is transferring to Montclair State University to major in physics.

Roughly 30 percent of college students nationally start out with at least some remedial coursework designed to get them up to speed for college level work. At community colleges, which have open admissions, the number jumps to more than 40 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Community college students have traditionally been, well, "non-traditional" - those with so-so high school records, or those returning to school after an absence, or needing workforce retraining.

Now because of rising tuition, increased competition for higher education, and a series of transfer agreements with four-year institutions, community colleges are also increasingly attracting the "traditional" college-bound student with good SAT scores and decent high school grades.

There were a few raised eyebrows among his classmates at Leonia High School when, as a senior, Ryan Campbell opted to go to Bergen Community in Paramus, N.J. After all, he had a 3.8 grade-point average from a suburban high school with a good reputation. He had been accepted at four-year schools like Rutgers, Skidmore and the University of Vermont.

But Campbell's mom is a professor at Bergen and the son decided to take advantage of the free tuition for staffers' children.

"I was debating between two years at Skidmore or two free years," said Campbell. "I chose free."

Even paying students can save a bundle by going to community college, which costs about $2,000 per year for in-county residents. Campbell, who has served as vice president of student government, is transferring to Tulane University in New Orleans. Tuition and fees will top $35,000 a year.

"Several of the community colleges report that more and more high schoolers are choosing to come here first," said Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the state's 19-member Council of County Colleges. "They've held the line on tuition and have transfer agreements with many four-year institutions."

All now have so-called articulation agreements, in which community college credits easily transfer to several four-year schools.

Campbell has no qualms about having taken the community college route. "I wouldn't minimize the quality of education here," he said. "All the honors classes were difficult." He said he believed his good record at BCC made it easier to get into a well-respected school like Tulane than it would have been as a freshman.

Tina Magrabi of Dumont, N.J., can testify to the transfer power of a BCC degree. Magrabi, who had a straight A average at Bergen, will graduate this month from Yale University with a 3.6 grade-point average and a B.A. in Near Eastern languages. "I'm not the only one from Bergen to transfer to an Ivy League school," she said. She said the honors courses at Bergen prepared her well for her time at Yale.

The trend toward higher-achieving students has made for a broad mix at the colleges, where most students still test into some remedial classes as freshmen.

"The dynamic in the classroom varies considerably," said Professor Michael Orlando, director of testing for the college. "The reason we're here is to make the access to higher education much more democratic."

May 16th's graduating class represented a wide range of students, including 80-year-old Jean Lebreton from Allendale, N.J., who earned awards in paralegal studies and world languages.

Michelle Crispin came from the Dominican Republic six years ago knowing "not a word" of English. At Bergen she was placed in remedial English classes. "It really helped me a lot. I understand everything now but I'm still working on my accent. My English may not be that good but I can still defend myself in two other languages," said Crispin, who is fluent in French as well as Spanish.

Last Friday, Crispin rushed to the campus from her part-time job at a dry cleaning store to accept her associate's degree in computer science. She will continue her education at Rutgers College in the fall.

Remediation has always been at the heart of the community college mission and the percentage of students requiring such classes has remained fairly constant, said Orlando.

Nationwide, 41 percent of community college students require at least one remedial class; all of the nation's community colleges and 81 percent of four-year institutions offer some remediation, according to the Education Commission of the States.

At Bergen, about 50 percent of students need remediation in English, and 60 percent in math, Orlando said. Those numbers mirror other community colleges in the state, he said.

"The numbers have been amazingly consistent, despite changes in high school curriculum and so forth," Orlando said.

"Some people say we shouldn't be remediating students in college," said Orlando. "But high schools have their own problems and when you're an open admission institution you have to do the best you can for the students who show up at your door."

McCrary would say that in her case, that was pretty good.

"Just last week I wrote a thank-you note to my remedial math teacher," she said.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services