Community College Only Path to Higher Ed for Many

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This is the fourth report in a seven-part series.

Four people live in the three-bedroom home of Kanese Cook in Winter Park, Fla., outside Orlando. There's 3-year-old Anilius, 5-year-old Jasahni, and 10-year-old Destiny, who is brushing her teeth and helping the others get ready for school.

Their mother, Kanese Cook, has been attending Valencia Community College on and off for the past seven years. But she still hasn't earned an associate's degree. Things kept getting in the way.

"I've had to start classes and drop," she says, because of the other demands in her life. "Successful every semester? No, that hasn't happened."

Cook's original plan was to take enough classes to become a prison guard. But now, she's raising her sights. She'll finally get her associate's degree in May, and then she plans to move on to a four-year school, the University of Central Florida, to study forensics.

"At UCF, I feel like I'll be able to have a fresh start and be able to focus more, and, hopefully, get on the dean's list and things like that," she says. "And I'll probably end up going for my master's because it's only a year, and I've been in school forever, so what's a year?"

Cook is one of millions of Americans for whom community college is the path to a brighter future. These campuses enroll 46 percent of all U.S. college students, playing a key role in educating the students who can't afford or can't get into a four-year school.

"Almost all of our students work. Most have some kind of family obligations," says Valencia Community College President Sandy Shugart. "Many work multiple jobs. For them, higher education isn't the monastic experience where you put your life on hold. It's one of a dozen priorities that they're juggling."

A College for Students with Complicated Lives

As Orlando has grown, so has Valencia: It now educates 26,000 students from all over central Florida.

At Valencia's West Campus, Shugart surveys the school's centerpiece, Lake Pamela. In order to make the school accessible, Valencia has built six locations, with two more on the way.

"Everybody laughed back in the '70s, when they bought all this land out here in the middle of nowhere," he says. "Of course, it's in the middle of the city now."

Shugart says community colleges are thriving because they don't need to brag about how many kids they turn away every year, like their four-year counterparts do. He says he's focused on meeting the needs of his students.

"What I've fallen in love with is an ethic that says, 'It's about them, not us,'" Shugart says. "And I'm afraid that that's rare now, particularly in the big universities."

Like many students here and at other community colleges, Kanese Cook's life is complicated, even chaotic. She packs the kids into her Chevy at 8 a.m., and it takes about an hour just to make the rounds and drop off the older kids at the local elementary school.

One reason that Cook has taken so long to finish at Valencia is that her ex-boyfriend, the father of two of her children, often does not show up to take care of them.

"Unfortunately, he was not supportive at all," she says.

But she says Valencia reached out to her. She says the school tries to make sure that single parents like her succeed.

"They had things like picnics for the family and so, for those of us who really can't do anything extra without our family, they made it possible for us to incorporate our kids ," Cook says.

Building a Sense of Community

It's hard to build a sense of community at a commuter school. Valencia tries: It built a coffee shop right into the library, where students can line up for "sticky lips cappuccino with ooey-gooey caramel sauce."

Nearby, three students take turns playing chess. All three say they opted for Valencia because of the cost, because their grades were weak, or because they just weren't ready to leave home yet. One student named Immaculata Defeo says she has big plans.

"I'm going to go to UCF to continue my bachelor's and master's studies," she says. Then, Defeo says, she'll go to the University of Florida to pursue a doctorate.

On the receiving end, four-year schools like the University of Central Florida find that these transfer students do well. Valencia and other community colleges in the area guarantee students a spot at UCF; all their credits will transfer.

But student's like Kanese Cook face an uphill battle. More than half of all community college students never get any degree at all. If places like Valencia have their way, that number will rise and bridge the gap that keeps so many Americans from getting through college.

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