Geoffrey Greene remembers his first reaction when a teacher suggested community college to him. "Community college? That's for losers!" Then he visited Prince George's Community College in nearby Largo, Md. "The professors were interested in what I had to say and wanted to help," he says. "I was blown away." The administration made him an offer he couldn't refuse--a free ride on the already low tuition while he built up his grades enough to transfer as a junior to what he hopes will be a top school. Now a sophomore at PGCC with a 3.81 average, Greene emphasizes that he's not just taking easy classes at an easy school. "When I tell my former classmates the requirements in my honors courses, they're amazed," he says. "People have a very elitist view. But community college is one of the best decisions I ever made."

Community colleges have long suffered from an image problem. As two-year institutions (mostly public) with open admissions, they were seen as a last resort for the academically hopeless. But that's changing, as people become aware of the schools' affordability and small class sizes. Since 1999, the nation's 1,173 community colleges have had a 20 percent jump in enrollment--from 5.4 million to 6.5 million students. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 45 percent of first-time freshmen enroll in community colleges rather than four-year schools. There are differences, of course. Community colleges typically have no dorms or football teams, so there is less campus life. The student body also skews older, including more students with prior academic degrees who are retraining or beefing up their skills with a few classes. But the upside of this environment is that these students tend to have greater motivation and discipline. The prime reason for choosing community college, though, is money. Just don't say the word "cheap," as in "inferior." "We're not," says Susan Davis, spokeswoman for the five campuses of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). "We're affordable." At NOVA, in-state students pay just $1,907 a year for a full courseload. At an Ivy League institution, a student might pay considerably more for a single class.

That's not the only reason to consider community college. The main goal of the professors there is to teach, rather than do research, so instruction tends to be excellent. And unlike four-year schools, which relegate freshmen to huge lectures, community colleges keep classes small--with instruction by professors themselves rather than teaching assistants. "Most of my classes had 20 people in them," says Tom Dake II, who attended Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, before transferring to the University of Toledo. Lorain even has a Division of Student Success, which provides services like free tutoring in any subject.

But to get a bachelor's degree, graduates will need to transfer to a four-year institution. Most community colleges have "articulation agreements" with nearby four-year schools that specify the classes and grades a student must show for transfer. Meet the qualifications and you're in. Lorain has an agreement with Oberlin, and the Dallas-area community colleges have them with Southern Methodist University.

Still, does time at a community college hurt a r??sum??? Darin Chambers of Sacramento, Calif., doesn't think so. A high-school valedictorian, he opted for Sacramento Community College for financial reasons. Now he's a medical student at the University of California, Davis. Or consider the case of 56-year-old J. Craig Venter. "I only graduated high school because I managed to get a D-minus instead of an F in government," admits Venter. Without community college, he says, "I would not have made it at all." But he did make it. He completed his Ph.D. in physiology at the University of California, San Diego, and went on to found Celera, the company that sequenced the human genome. Pretty good for the pride and joy of a San Mateo, Calif., community college.