WASHINGTON — Washington. They've been derided as ''Mickey Mouse Universities'' and ''High Schools With Ash Trays.'' They've been praised as the ''Ellis Island of Higher Education'' and ''The People's Colleges.''
In this time of recession and reduced government grants, when millions of new and not-so-new high school graduates are searching for affordable, accessible ways to continue their educations, and when this nation urgently needs a better-trained citizenry, maybe the best description is ''schools that make dreams come true.''
I'm talking about community colleges, the two-year institutions that have gone from being a stepchild of the academic family to one of its most vital members. They perform one of the most difficult and important tasks in higher education: opening classroom doors that historically have been closed to millions of Americans.
More than 5.5 million students are taking credit and degree courses at the 1,200 or so community colleges this year. That's two out of every five students enrolled in all U.S. colleges and universities and more than half of all freshmen. Another 5 million people take non-credit and special courses. And enrollments are rising dramatically.
Impressive as those numbers are, more important is whom they include. There are young people who want to continue their education but are frightened by the idea of big, pressure-packed campuses. Good students who don't have the money for a four-year institution. Poor students who need remedial help. Welfare mothers returning to class in an effort to make a brighter future for themselves and their children. Some will use the college as a stepping stone to further education, others as a training ground for a first career, or a fourth. Still others find it a source of lifelong learning.
All are welcome at community colleges, where the hallmark is accessibility. They open their doors to virtually everyone without worrying about grades, age, test scores or even a high school diploma.
Classes are held at convenient places and times -- in shopping malls, churches, neighborhood schools, prisons, from early morning till late at night and on weekends. Ninety percent of Americans are within commuting distance of a community college.
Nor is money an impossible hurdle. Tuition, books and fees average about $1,000 a year, half the cost of a public four-year institution.
As a result, community colleges have become a haven for low-income, minority students. At last count, 55 percent of all Hispanics, 43 percent of blacks and 41 percent of Asians in higher education attended community colleges. The schools also attract more older people, with an average student age of close to 30.
These institutions appear destined to play an even greater role in the future as their constituency grows. By the end of this century, more than 40 percent of children in public schools are expected to be minorities, poor, or both. A large number will be at risk of dropping out. Others will graduate but not be able to afford college.
Despite their emergence as a major force in American education, community colleges remain suspect in some quarters. The chief problem is their unique philosophy -- admit anyone who wants to enter and meet the needs of all who are there.
Critics contend that this is an impossible task, that these colleges simply cannot be ''all things to all people.'' There's concern that some two-year schools put too much emphasis on occupational education and are in danger of becoming ''trade schools.''
Another worry is that higher education has become a two-track system, with minorities and low-income students chugging along on the two-year track.
Far from being a weakness, I regard the ''open door'' policy as a strength of community colleges. I agree with those who argue that we ought to celebrate the diversity of these institutions and make sure that they never close their doors, even part-way, to the needs of everyone in their communities.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.