The sun is just beginning to poke through the bare trees when cars start arriving at the mall-size parking lot that surrounds Anne Arundel Community College. In a few hours, the lot will be filled to near capacity, and it will not empty until just before midnight.
This is a common pattern at Maryland's 15 community colleges, higher education's unheralded workhorses that face pressures from all directions.
As more high school graduates look to community colleges to start a college education, these schools also face growing competition for students seeking training for the technological workplace and an increased demand to respond quickly to everything from the needs of industry to immigrants learning to speak English.
"They are of crucial importance and they don't get enough attention," Patricia S. Florestano, state secretary of education, says of community colleges.
While state officials brag about rising test scores and higher-quality students at University of Maryland, College Park, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Salisbury State, it is community colleges -- with their open admissions policies -- that enroll 40 percent of Maryland residents in public higher education.
"Community colleges and four-year schools define success in dramatically different ways," says Charlene R. Nunley, the president of Montgomery College, that county's community college. "We try to take as many people as we can and work with them to achieve their life goals, while the four-year schools are more focused on the outstanding excellence of their students."
But, with those four-year schools getting more selective, community colleges are showing an increase in full-time enrollments -- by many students who plan to transfer to four-year schools.
When Wayne Ellis decided to teach one of the courses bringing some of those cars to the AACC parking lot so early -- a 7 a.m. introductory English class -- he thought most of his students would be like him, adults hitting class early before work.
Instead, most are right out of high school, full-time students filling a requirement at a time that fits their schedules.
This trend occurs as more for-profit entities are going after the bread-and-butter of community colleges -- part-time students looking for training for specific jobs, even businesses that want courses designed for their employees.
Michael Keller of the Maryland Higher Education Commission points to that competition and rising tuitions at community colleges as one reason for their decline in part-time enrollment.
With so many different kinds of students -- in abilities and age, in interests and ambitions -- community colleges are the academic equivalent of a lively stew.
"Along the way, I realized something exciting was happening at community colleges," says AACC President Martha Smith, who has worked at four-year schools. "For me, this was where the action was."
That stew includes plenty of students who show up with high school diplomas, but without high school skills. "With their classic open-door admission policy, if you goofed off in high school, you have a chance to make it up. Anybody can go there and get started," Florestano says.
At Baltimore City Community College, 90 percent of the applicants need work in reading, English or mathematics. "Math is the biggest stumbling block," says BCCC President James Tschechtelin.
AACC English instructor Ellis, who has a master's degree in American literature -- and like most community college teachers is an adjunct professor, paid $1,500 to teach this course -- says any literary criticism he gets from his students is a bonus. His job is to teach writing.
"I've been in the working world for so long, I see the need for writing" instruction, he says. "It's ridiculous the number of people who can't write."
Ellis knows that puts him somewhere between a college teacher and a vocational instructor. But that is in keeping with a community college role.
Says Thomas Mortenson, an Iowa-based educational researcher who publishes the newsletter Postsecondary Educational Opportunity: "As someone who has dedicated his life to insuring opportunity for people to get higher education, for a long time I fought against the Jeffersonian idea of an educated elite. But now I think educating that elite is the role of the top colleges and universities.
"Community colleges offer a skills-based education. Instead of learning how to think critically about problems, their students learn how to do something. That's important. It keeps them economically alive."
Adds Tschechtelin: "One of our main missions is to train the work force that the city of Baltimore needs."
BCCC offers a guarantee -- if a graduate of a career program can't find a job or an employer is unhappy with that graduate, he can return for more training.
AACC history department chairman David Tengwall says community colleges can offer a top-flight education.