WASHINGTON – Diane Drake of the Community College of Baltimore County does not usually have to tell prospective students where Baltimore County is — or what a community college is, for that matter.
But last spring, Drake was in a high school in Taiwan, pointing to a dot on a map of the United States and explaining — through a translator — that two years at a community college can lead to a four-year-school.
“We’re trying to get our name and our mission out there,” said Drake, the school’s director of admissions. “It’s a matter of educating them about community colleges in the U.S. The attitudes are more or less changing.”
Once the domain of older students, part-time workers and locals seeking to transfer to a four-year school, community colleges are expanding the definition of “community” and taking trips overseas to recruit students.
Recruiting overseas is a relatively new phenomenon, said Judith Irwin, the director of international programs and services for the American Association of Community Colleges. She led officials from 18 community colleges — including those in Baltimore and Howard counties — on the organization’s first-ever recruiting trip to Taiwan, Korea and Japan last spring.
“Our purpose in being there had nothing to do with shoring up enrollment,” said Barbara Greenfeld, director of admissions and advising for Howard County Community College. “I think the main thing we are thinking is what it can contribute to the college. The most important thing is providing an international education experience for students who in most locales are commuters.”
In each of the last two years, the number of international students at U.S. community colleges has grown by 7 percent, according to a report by the Institute of International Education. In the 2001-2002 school year, there were 98,813 international students at community colleges, accounting for about one- fifth of all international students in this country.
Officials at the two Maryland schools insisted their first priority remains serving the residents who pay taxes to support the school, and they said those students will not be replaced by the newcomers. But international students give community colleges the valuable commodity of diversity — something most colleges agree is even more important after Sept. 11.
“Community colleges have realized that in order for their students to be able to live and work in a global world, you need to diversify,” Irwin said. “And the community is made richer by people outside of those who live there.”
There are also economic incentives for community colleges to attract foreign students. Besides paying out-of-state tuition — about twice as much as in-state residents pay — officials said international students often bring family and friends who contribute to the college’s revenues and to the local economy.
For foreign students, community colleges offer opportunities that are often unavailable in their countries. Irwin ticks off a list: smaller classes, English as a second language courses, close relationships with faculty and the opportunity to continue their schooling. In most countries, there is no such thing as a community college, she said.
“International students are finally learning about the concept of community colleges,” Irwin said. “Community college is not a dead end. The greatest benefit for international students is that U.S. community colleges offer them the gateway to higher education. They can do their first two years at a community college, then transfer to get a B.A. or B.S.”
The 18 colleges that accompanied Irwin to Asia in the spring hailed from Utah, North Dakota and Hawaii, among other places, and visited high schools, embassies, consulates and Fulbright offices. Irwin said they chose Asia because that is where most international students come from. Sixteen schools, none from Maryland, took a second Asia trip this fall.
Through a translator, the students quizzed school representatives about their most popular majors, the names of four-year schools that the students transferred to and often, Drake said, whether there were any other students there “that look like me.”
Baltimore County college officials took down the e-mail and mailing addresses of 400 high school students and hope the trip will produce a yield in foreign enrollment in a few years. About 500 of the school’s 26,000 credit students are international, an official said.
While Baltimore County was on the trip to scout out potential students, however, Howard community college officials were there to gather information and make contacts for a future international recruitment push. There are currently only about 100 international students among Howard’s 6,100 students, officials said.
“It was exploratory for us,” Greenfeld said. “We are trying to decide whether to go to the next level.”
Greenfeld said the school does not currently have facilities to handle a significant boost in international students. It does have an English Language Institute, but she said more programs, counseling, transportation and medical care are needed before large numbers of foreign students can enroll.
“People are far away from home,” Greenfeld said. “It’s one thing to bring the students here, but the implications of a student not being successful are very significant.”
At the community college fair in Taipei, Taiwan, some potential students were still having a hard time figuring out where Baltimore County is, despite the map Drake had posted.
Drake pitched her school over the 17 others at the fair by telling them, “we’re four hours away from New York City and 40 minutes from Washington D.C.”
But the Taiwanese students finally made the connection, she said, when they realized that Drake’s school was not far from where Michael Jordan plays basketball.