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Community colleges: credit where it is due

In lean times, many are finding public education a very good deal

In the atrium lobby of Quincy College, Sabienne Maceus (left) and her twin sister, Sabine, of Mattapan, read their textbooks between classes. In the atrium lobby of Quincy College, Sabienne Maceus (left) and her twin sister, Sabine, of Mattapan, read their textbooks between classes. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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As classes changed one recent weekday morning at Massasoit Community College in Brockton, the line of cars leaving the campus stretched more than a mile back from the lights on Route 27.

As other students arrived, campus parking lots overflowed and classrooms filled to capacity. Almost two years into a national recession, this low-tuition, two-year state institution is a very busy place.

“I looked into other schools, but for classes I can take anywhere, Massasoit is a lot more affordable,’’ Chelsea Gardner, 22, said as she waited between classes at the student union. A Long Island native who took a few years off after high school, Gardner commutes daily from Boston to the campus on Brockton’s east side.

The scene is also crowded at Massasoit’s other campus, in Canton, as well as at Quincy College’s three sites in Quincy Center, North Quincy, and Plymouth.

Across Massachusetts, students are flocking to two-year public colleges, which have become refuges in the recession. The schools have open enrollment for most programs, and tuitions markedly cheaper than four-year private or public institutions. Students who earn an associate’s degree at a two-year college can usually transfer the credits to four-year schools.

The colleges also offer a range of vocational programs, which attract older students who may be unemployed or worried about losing their jobs.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, enrollment has risen almost 11 percent this year in the state’s community college system. At Massasoit, enrollment is up 7 percent this year and 13 percent from two years ago.

“In economic hard times, there is always a return to education for older students,’’ said Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland. “There also are a lot of families this year for whom the cost of college has become a significant issue.’’

Enrollment has risen 7 percent this year at Quincy College, which is not part of the state community college system and receives no state subsidies or direct aid from the city government. It’s the only municipal college in Massachusetts and one of only a few in the United States.

For Massachusetts residents, there are few cheaper routes to a college education than a state community college. At Massasoit, tuition and fees for state residents are $137 per credit hour, or $3,288 a year for a liberal arts student taking 12 credits per semester.

At Quincy College, most courses cost $165 per credit hour. “You can still write a check and take a course,’’ said Quincy College president Martha Sue Harris. “It’s less than $500 for a three-credit course.’’

Quincy College is especially attractive to foreign students, who pay the same tuition but are charged an additional international student fee of $45 per credit hour. At a state community college, foreign students pay the higher out-of-state tuition rates. At Massasoit, nonresident tuition is $230 per credit hour plus $113 in fees per credit hour.

“Quincy College is really cheap compared to other colleges over here,’’ said Sangya Dhungana, a native of Nepal who transferred to Quincy from a state college in Alabama.

Quincy College has about 600 international students out of a student body of 4,200.

Community colleges have been in the national spotlight in recent months, after President Obama declared them critical to development of the nation’s workforce. Federal economic stimulus money has been flowing to community colleges, and the president has asked Congress to boost funding to community colleges by $12 billion.

At Massasoit, federal stimulus money has allowed the institution to accommodate the growth in enrollment, according to the college’s president, Charles Wall. Stimulus aid accounts for $3.95 million of the college’s $20 million budget this school year.

To serve its growing student body, Massasoit has expanded its weekend offerings. This year, courses are even held on Sundays, with part-time faculty hired to do the teaching.

Unlike most other public and private colleges, Quincy College has not been hurt financially by the recession and financial crisis, according to college officials.

“We have no endowment,’’ said Harris. “We are not supported by tax money at all. The budget comes solely from tuition and fees.’’

Quincy College stays affordable because it does not have many of the expenses other institutions have, according to Harris. The school does not own any buildings; it leases all of its classroom space. It has no dorms or sports stadiums or quadrangles. Extracurricular programs are minimal.

Both Quincy and Massasoit work closely with potential employers to tailor training programs to their needs. Skills for medical fields are emphasized at both colleges.

Quincy College has special programs for medical lab technicians, exercise specialists, surgical technicians, and phlebotomists.

Massasoit is the only public college in the region that trains radiological technicians, according to Wall.

“If you get an MRI in southeastern Massachusetts, most likely you’ll find you’re dealing with a Massasoit rad-tech graduate,’’ Wall said.

These programs can be especially helpful during a recession. “These folks have jobs waiting for them,’’ said Wall of the medical trainees. “Sometimes there are signing bonuses.’’

The open enrollment policies at Quincy and Massasoit do not extend to the schools’ nursing programs and some of the other medical offerings. Students must compete for entry to those programs.

Massasoit is developing programs for the emerging environmental-service industry. The school offers training for weatherization installers, “green’’ energy sales representatives, solar photovoltaic installers, and home inspectors.

Another attraction for Quincy College is its locations on the MBTA’s Red Line. “It’s really accessible,’’ said Gabe Parsons, 25, of Quincy, now in his third semester. “It’s right on the T.’’

Convenience is important to Parsons, who works three jobs in addition to being a full-time student. One of his jobs is as a counselor at the New England Home for Little Wanderers; he hopes eventually to get a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Suzanne D’Alessandro, 43, of Easton, also would like to be a teacher. She received a brochure in the mail from Massasoit three years ago, just as the youngest of her four children was starting elementary school. She decided to enroll.

“I figured this would be a good place to figure out what I wanted to do,’’ D’Alessandro said.

She became an English major and hopes to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and teach English. She works as a tutor now at Massasoit’s writing department.

“The diversity on this campus is incredible,’’ said D’Alessandro. “The stories people who come here have to tell are amazing.’’

Now in his second year at Massasoit, Ryan Levia, 25, of Canton has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He said the college has helped him to overcome physical and learning disabilities.

“You come here to further your formal education, but you learn a lot from the other students the lessons in life,’’ Levia said.

Filemon Carvalho, 20, of Taunton, is in his first year at Massasoit and has been in the United States a little over a year. A native of Cape Verde, he said the school has helped him to adjust to life in America.

“I’ve made many friends here,’’ Carvalho said. “I have a good relationship with the staff. They help with the struggles.’’

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

Quincy College
Founded: 1958
Governance: Municipal college owned by City of Quincy
Campuses: Quincy Center, North Quincy, Plymouth
Enrollment: 4,200
Annual tuition and fees for full-time liberal arts program: $3,960

Massasoit Community College
Founded: 1966
Governance: Part of the state Department of Higher Education’s 15-school community college system
Campuses: Brockton, Canton
Enrollment: 7,941
Annual tuition and fees for full-time liberal arts program, in-state resident: $3,288

University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Annual tuition, fees, room, and board: $20,008

Boston College
Annual tuition, room, and board: $50,370
Sarah Lawrence College (highest in national survey)
Annual tuition, room, and board: $54,410
Institutions offer financial aid, which can significantly reduce actual costs to students.

SOURCES: Individual colleges and universities, Campus Grotto survey of US college costs

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