Originally created 09/25/00

Branch colleges prosper



Jonathan White marvels at the grab bag of instructors that he's had during his college career.

"I've had teachers who were nuclear scientists, officers in World War II," Mr. White said. "I had a teacher who was an East Boundary police officer. You learn things from them that will stay with you for the rest of your life."

He met the potpourri of faculty members at the Martinez campus of Georgia Military College where he started working on a two-year general studies degree last year.

Georgia Military College wasn't the first stop for the Lakeside High School graduate: He took a few classes at Georgia Southern University and Augusta State University before realizing he needed some conveniences that the more traditional campuses weren't offering him.

And he's not alone. Community colleges - such as Georgia Military College's Martinez branch - have grown in popularity, evident in their increased enrollmentin the past three to five years.

There's a variety of factors attracting students to the schools:

Easier admission requirements, such as no required SAT scores, in some instances

The option of taking classes under the quarter system, which allows students to have more flexible schedules

A speedier road to a degree.

The trend of increased enrollment at community colleges began shortly after the state stepped up its admissions requirements four years ago and switched state schools from the semester to the quarter system.

"The changes that the Georgia Board of Regents made affected us by probably sending more students to us who in an earlier time might have gone somewhere like ASU," said Bruce Wright, a director of Georgia Military College. "We undoubtedly picked up some students from that."

At Georgia Military College, the average age has dropped gradually to 21 in the past few years, moving the community college away from its image as a school for older students going back to school.

"One of the things we thought was a turnoff to the younger students was the name. A lot of people think that they have to join the Army if they come to the school. We are a community college," Mr. Wright said, adding that only 20 percent of the school's student body is military.

Some choose to go to community colleges to bypass the sometimes convoluted admissions requirements of colleges and universities.

And after students go through the two-year program at Georgia Military, some transfer directly into schools such as Augusta State, said Mr. Wright.

All of the quicker community programs advertise that they are accredited by the same state-approved agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, that keeps check on Georgia's more traditional universities.

James Roberts, an associate director with the association, said it depends solely on the policy of the receiving institutions whether the credits and degrees will be accepted.

"But it is not mandated that an institution accept any work that comes in," he said. "And it's entirely up to the institution to determine what its policy is on the acceptance of transfer work."

Accreditation is only one of the factors that determine the value and options a degree represents.

"Reputation. And reputation is established by the tradition of the institution, the age of the institution, the endowment of the institution, the faculty, the major programs it has, the Nobel scholars that have been recognized from there," Mr. Roberts said.

"All of those things add up to establishing a reputation in the higher education community."

Faculty members of the smaller programs say they battle a variety of misconceptions and some unfounded bad raps.

"It's not uncommon for us to be called a night school. I'm not happy with that term," said James E. Franken, the site coordinator at the Troy State University Augusta campus. "The work that our students do isn't any different than any other schools where they go during the day. It's the same work - we just package it in a different way. All of our instructors have terminal degrees. We have our work in class."

Troy State University's one-year satellite graduate program in Augusta is 2 weeks old and already has more than 30 new students.

The three master's degree programs Troy State offers in Augusta are part of the school's University College - the name of its collection of satellite programs, which has about 13,000 students in the Southeast. And the degree programs are the same as those offered on the school's main campus in Troy, Alabama. The programs take full advantage of distance learning and often hold classes and discussions online. Students can check out video recordings of lectures and aren't counted absent.

Dr. Franken said Troy State opened the Augusta school because the need has grown more apparent in recent years.

"I've been working for Troy State for about 10 years as a part-time instructor. And in that capacity, I've had to travel to teach," Dr. Franken said. "In my classes in Atlanta, Savannah and Fort Benning, there were students from Augusta and Aiken and other places."

Reach Clarissa J. Walker at (706) 828-3851 or cjwalker@augustachronicle.com.