David Bowie knew what he was doing when he decided to attend Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, Ark.
"With a two-year degree, I can get into the work force faster and start making good money," says Mr. Bowie, who lives in Conway, Ark., a town west of Little Rock that has three universities. "I also get hands-on training, which is what a lot of employers are looking for these days."
In many ways, Bowie is part of a growing trend at community colleges nationwide. For years, community colleges have extended higher education to more Americans through low tuition. But today, they are also filling a niche for those who want to hone technical skills that will win them better jobs and more money.
For students like Bowie, they are a practical alternative to four-year colleges, and for many college graduates with bachelor's degrees in hand, they are an increasingly attractive way to keep up with the needs of a changing workplace.
"Two-year institutions are the new graduate schools for people who must keep coming back to get more education and skills," says Mark Milliron, vice president for the League for Innovation in the Community College.
In fact, 1 of 4 students who attend a community college has a bachelor's degree or higher. Many of these have signed up for courses for credit - pushing enrollment back up to 5.4 million after a slight dip during the mid-1990s. Yet a substantial number of these new students - and other newcomers - are noncredit students seeking more technical training.
"A main aspect of community colleges is that they are so closely integrated to the business community and can offer courses which are the actual work the students will be doing on the job," says Norma Kent, director of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges. "Most students get hired as soon as they walk out the doors."
Johnie Dodd considered her job prospects when she registered for classes at Pulaski Technical College, which has doubled its enrollment since 1996. "When I leave here with [my degree], I'll have a job offer," says Ms. Dodd. "I know a lot of people with bachelor's degrees who are waiting tables."
Dodd is on target when assessing the job-placement rate of two-year schools, especially for students in "hot" programs such as technology, physical therapy, automotive, and law enforcement. In the past three years, the average starting salary received by information technology (IT) program graduates has increased by 24 percent, from $20,753 to $25,771.
Community colleges alleviate a critical shortage in skilled professionals needed for IT programs. By 2000, 80 percent of all new jobs, especially in IT, will require an education beyond high school but not a four-year degree. It's one example of how two-year colleges are reaching out to businesses to shape programs that will help students find jobs, says Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges.
"We are seeing the work force shift from needing little or no skills to workers needing more and more skills," he says. "That means if we are to attract new business to the state and retain existing business, our local work force must be ready. Retraining the current work force is just as important as first-time education. Community colleges are doing both."
US COMMUNITY COLLEGE SNAPSHOT
* 58 percent female, 42 percent male.
* 45 percent of all undergraduates.
* 37 percent of all white students in higher education.
* 42 percent of all African-American students in higher education.
* 55 percent of all Hispanic students in higher education.
* 40 percent of all Asian/Pacific Islander students in higher education.
* Average lifetime earnings for a graduate are about $250,000 more than for a high school graduate.