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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Luke Burbank.
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I'm Madeleine Brand.
Nearly half of all college students go to community colleges. These schools are key for millions of people who can't afford or can't get into a four-year school.
As part of our series on college admissions, NPR's Larry Abramson reports on how one student finds a future in community college.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Four people live in the three-bedroom home of Kanese Cook in Winter Park, Florida, outside Orlando. There's three-year-old Anilius.
ANILIUS: My name, Anilius.
ABRAMSON: Five-year-old Jasahni.
JASAHNI: I was four before, and now I'm five.
ABRAMSON: The big girl, 10-year-old Destiny, is brushing her teeth and helping the others get ready for school.
Kanese Cook, the mother of this brood, has been attending Valencia Community College on and off for the past seven years. But she still hasn't gotten an associate's degree. Things keep getting in the way.
Ms. KANESE COOK (Student, Valencia Community College): I've had to start classes and drop and just life happening throughout these years, you know. Successful every semester? No, that hasn't happened.
ABRAMSON: Her 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 go to a respected four year school, the University of Central Florida, to study forensics.
Ms. COOK: 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. 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, what's a year?
ABRAMSON: Kanese may be laughing because she herself can't believe she's actually going to get that far. But Kanese Cook is exactly the kind of student that Valencia Community College president Sandy Shugart is trying to attract and nurture.
Mr. SANDY SHUGART (President, Valencia Community School): Almost all of our students work. Most have some kind of family obligations. 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.
ABRAMSON: At Valencia's West Campus, Sandy 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.
Mr. SHUGART: Everybody laughed back in the '70s when they bought all this land out here in the middle of nowhere. And of course it's in the middle of the city now.
ABRAMSON: As Orlando has grown, so has Valencia. There are now educates 26,000 students from all over central Florida. 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. Shugart says he's focused on meeting the needs of his students.
Mr. SHUGART: What I've fallen in love with is an ethic and the ethic says it's about them, not us. And I am afraid that that's rare now, particularly in the big universities.
ABRAMSON: At Kanese Cook's house, it's 8:00 a.m., time to pack the kids into the Chevy. It takes a good hour for her to make the rounds and drop the older kids at the local elementary school.
Like many students at the nation's community colleges, Kanese's life is complicated, even chaotic. One reason why she's 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.
Ms. COOK: I mean (unintelligible) but unfortunately he was not supportive at all.
ABRAMSON: But Valencia reached out to Kanese. They're trying to make sure that single parents can succeed at Valencia.
Ms. COOK: 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 be able to incorporate our kids, you know.
ABRAMSON: It's hard to build a sense of community at a commuter school. Valencia tries by building a coffee shop right into the library. Students 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.
Ms. IMMACULATA DEFEO (Student, Valencia Community School): Yes, I'm going to go to UCF to continue my Bachelor's and Master's study. And then I'm going to attend UF for my doctorate.
ABRAMSON: So why did you start here instead of going straight to UCF?
Ms. DEFEO: I had an opportunity to go to UCF, but towards my last year in my senior year, my grades plummeted and so did my GPA. So this was a great alternative.
ABRAMSON: 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.
Professor KURT OVERHIYA(ph) (Calculus, Valencia Community College): Do you remember what that derivative of E to the X was, or inch?
Ms. COOK: Oh, one, right? No.
ABRAMSON: At Valencia's winter park campus, Kanese Cook has arrived at the library. She's swapped her pink pajamas for a nice blouse. The place is packed. Every computer terminal is in use. She's there for a meeting with her calculus professor, Kurt Overhiya.
Prof. OVERHIYA: And then the derivative of negative X is?
Ms. COOK: Negative one.
Prof. OVERHIYA: Right. So you have to multiply this by a negative one.
ABRAMSON: Kanese's easygoing attitude may help her face the challenge of going to a four-year school, but she'll need more than good humor. 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.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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