Shannon Zirkle's decision to attend Howard Community College two years ago was based on the college's affordability and on the Rouse Scholars Program, which rewards academically talented students.
The HCC student government president says she has received a quality education at a reasonable price, in part because the Rouse program, named for Columbia founder James W. Rouse, has paid about $4,000 toward the cost of her education.
Additional scholarships have picked up the tab for her books and other costs.
"I can live at home and save a lot of money," said Zirkle, 20, a sophomore. "I get the same, quality education as [many of her peers]."
Zirkle is a member of the fastest-growing segment of the student population at HCC - traditional college-age students.
She is also reflective of a growing number of students who want a good education at bargain prices. At a time when many state and private schools offer the same courses at much higher prices, the popularity of community colleges is increasing in the state.
For instance, Zirkle said she saved thousands of dollars studying in London through a partnership HCC has with Dickinson College.
"It was a great experience, but I know some people are paying $30,000 a year to [enjoy such a venture]," she said, adding she plans to transfer to Western Kentucky University and major in photojournalism after finishing at HCC.
According to Randy Bengfort, spokesman for the college, enrollment in the traditional age group of 16 to 19 was 2,032 for fall 2003 - a 55 percent increase from 1999. Total credit enrollment for fall 2003 was 6,435, a 23 percent jump from fall 1999.
According to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, more than 62 percent of all high school graduates who stay in Maryland for higher education attend a community college.
And, based on preliminary fall 2003 enrollment reports from the Maryland Higher Education Commission, students taking credit courses at community colleges totaled 117,473, compared with 99,451 undergraduate students at the state's 13 four-year public universities.
Students choose community colleges for a variety of reasons, said Tony Kinkel, executive director of MACC.
"The No. 1 reason is that the quality is there. Our credits transfer," he said. "[Community colleges] cost half the price of the University System of Maryland and about one-seventh the price of independent schools in Maryland."
Another reason is proximity to home, Kinkel said.
"Students say, `I can stay here and commute to school, and I can live where I'm living and continue working,'" he said.
A third factor is that "admission standards at the University System of Maryland are [inching] upward, and it's getting harder to get in. We accept you where you are," Kinkel said.
Kate Hetherington, vice president of student services at HCC, said the trend toward younger students enrolling at the college began about a decade ago.
"Ten years ago, the average age of [students on campus] was 29. Now, it's 22," she said. "It's a plus. It makes it a lot of fun. There's a lot of energy."
With the influx of more traditional-age students has come a shift in programs and services, Hetherington added.
"These students are here full-time, and they want to be doing things," she said. More students are participating in clubs and in athletic programs.
"Two or three years ago, we couldn't get a women's basketball team [in place], but now they are ranked ... nationally," she said.
The college also offers men's and women's soccer teams in addition to other sports and activities.
"What we're seeing is this feeling of a more traditional [college setting] among the students," said Hetherington. "We built a quad, so that students could walk through it, and feel like they're in a traditional [college setting]."
HCC offers two kinds of credit programs: transfer and career.
There are 57 transfer programs, including general studies and business administration. Under the transfer program, students earn associate degrees and transfer to four-year universities to complete their bachelor's degrees.
With career programs, students go directly into the work force after leaving school. There are 57 such programs, including nursing and business management. They offer a two-year associate of applied science degree or a one-year certificate of proficiency.
In the noncredit area, the most popular courses are Kids on Campus, a program for school-age children; English as a Second Language; and entry-level allied health training. During the past five years, 65,177 students have taken noncredit courses.
Students pay $90 a credit hour, but that might change if the college's $51 million budget for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, is approved. The college is seeking a $10-a-credit in-county tuition increase to help cover rising expenses at HCC.
"Not too many students are happy about it," said Zirkle, but she added, "I'm not sure how it will affect students attending the school."