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KAI RYSSDAL: Forget the Ivies and the big name public universities. Community colleges are increasingly where it's at in higher education. In the face of enrollment cuts and tuition increases, a lot of students are staying closer to home. People who've lost their jobs are enrolling, trying to start new careers. And minority students, Latinos especially, see community colleges as a good first step.
Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks has our story.
Emily Hanford: If you want to find Latino college students, go to your local community college. This is where most of them begin. Community colleges are inexpensive and easy to get into. In fact, you don't apply -- you just sign up.
That's what Katy Sorto did. Her ultimate goal is a bachelor's degree, but her plan is to spend two years at a community college, then transfer.
Katy Sorto: I'm nervous, I'm just nervous.
It's Katy's first day of classes at Montgomery College, a community college just outside of Washington, D.C. Katy's not sure she's ready for college. She says her high school wasn't very good; she didn't learn much.
English professor: All right, so this is EL 101. Everybody in the right place?
Katy's first class is English. She was placed here based on the results of a test all students take when they enroll. Turns out this is an English as a second language course, which surprises me.
Katy was raised in El Salvador, but she's been going to school in the United States since sixth grade. The other students in this class have been in this country a few months, a few years. But when I ask Katy if she thinks she's in the right class, she says yes, it's exactly what she needs.
Sorto: The people there is with the same condition as me. It's good.
Katy says in all her years in American public schools she never learned to read or write well in English. Most students who come to community college are not ready for college-level work. More than 60 percent have to take some sort of non-credit or remedial class.
James Rosenbaum: They're in college buildings, but they're in college buildings taking high school courses.
Northwestern University sociologist James Rosenbaum studies community college students.
Rosenbaum: It sort of gradually dawns on them that they're not getting credit. But when they learn this, it's a big disappointment.
And many of them drop out. Community colleges typically lose half their students in the first year. Rosenbaum says the problem -- especially for minority students from poor communities -- is that graduating from high school does not mean they're ready for college.
Rosenbaum: Students pass high school exit exams and three months later they show up at college and they're told, you're not ready for college-level material.
English professor: Was it grammar you wanted to talk about?
This is Katy Sorto's problem. By the middle of her first semester in college, she's struggling to keep up. So she's come to her professor for extra help.
English professor: You have good oral English that you draw from when you're writing, but then you have the verb mistakes.
Sorto: That's my problem.
Katy says she now regrets not working harder in high school. True her school wasn't very good, but she freely admits she could have done better. And the fact that she didn't do very well puts her at great risk of never getting a college degree, according to sociologist James Rosenbaum. He says high schools aren't pushing students hard enough.
Rosenbaum: We tell students, "If you can squeak by we'll promote you to the next grade. If you can squeak by, we'll send you to college even."
It's the irony of the "college for all" attitude. Anyone, everyone can go to college now. But if everyone can go, and there are community colleges that will take you no matter what your grades or test scores, then why work hard in high school?
English professor: OK, this word is pronounced "alternate." Can you say it with me?
Class, together: "Alternate."
English professor: How would you clap it?
Katy Sorto made it through her English class and is now in her second year of community college. But she still has several more remedial classes to go before she can start earning credit toward her diploma. At this rate, it will take her at least four years to get what she thought would be a two-year degree. But Katy says she's determined to do it.
I'm Emily Hanford for Marketplace.