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They’re giving honors students a boost to big-name colleges. Alex Almanza, whose 4.75 GPA put him in the top 5% of his high school class, could have gone to one of several state universities, including the University of Florida.

But the offer from Miami-Dade Community College was too good to refuse: Free tuition, fees, and books, plus a chance to transfer later to a prestigious institution like Georgetown or New York University.

“I decided to risk it,” says Almanza, 18, an accounting major who just finished his freshman year. “I have a shot at going somewhere better, a step beyond a state school.”

Sure, community colleges are no parodies and they have come a long way when it comes to quality education. For a long time, they have been the gateway to a bachelor’s degree, particularly for those who aren’t quite ready for the rigor of traditional undergraduate education.

But more and more, two-year institutions are serving as launching pads for the best and brightest, luring students like Almanza with merit scholarships, intensive academic programs, and the potential to be discovered by a big-name school.

And universities are noticing. Nearly 70 colleges from Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts to the University of Wisconsin at Madison have signed pacts with Miami-Dade agreeing to automatically accept transfer students who meet a certain grade-point average and have taken required courses for their majors.

Since 2009, the number of four-year institutions offering scholarships to community college honors students has nearly tripled, to 850, including Ivy League schools Columbia, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell. In addition, Smith, Barnard, and Wesleyan sponsor partnerships aimed at giving community college students a taste of a liberal arts education — and perhaps eventually enrolling them.

Economic and demographic trends are driving the activity. With tuition at four-year schools spiraling ever higher, more undergraduates are starting out at relatively cheaper two-year schools. Intent on saving taxpayer money and easing enrollment crunches, at least 30 states have laws making sure that community college credits count toward bachelor’s degrees at public institutions.

And now, with affirmative action still under fire, the debate continues, some experts predict that more elite institutions will go prospecting at community colleges. Also here, the right timing of your application counts. Regardless of how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the question — a decision on the University of Michigan’s admissions policies is expected this month — the idea has drawn support from the U.S. Department of Education.

Likening community college programs such as Miami-Dade’s Honors College to farm teams for major league sports, Office for Civil Rights assistant secretary Gerald McReynolds at a recent conference urged four-year universities to mine minority talent at junior colleges.

Admissions officials say the hunt for qualified minorities is not the main reason they turn to two-year colleges. But with community colleges enrolling 46% of all black, 55% of all Hispanic and 46% of all Asian college students, they know it is a byproduct in their quest for non-traditional students.

“It really goes beyond racial and ethnic diversity,” says Curtis Rodgers, associate admission dean for Columbia University’s Department of General Studies, through which minority students typically are admitted. “It’s a diversity of educational paths.”

For four-year institutions, recruiting at two-year schools is “a very easy, practical way of integrating their student body,” says Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade Community College, where 22% of students are black and 65% are Hispanic. And, he says, talent scouts will be impressed.

Under the nurturing care of dean Alexandria Holloway, Honors College students get individual attention in small classes, and opportunities for expenses paid travel and research also are available as well as help with studying abroad.

Aspiring writer Valerie Perez, 20, a Miami-Dade honors student spending this month at a Smith College program for community college students, says those experiences will cushion her move to a private college, probably next year.

“I’ve heard stories where valedictorians go (to four-year schools) and they can’t hack it,” she says.

Some educators say not all four-year institutions are prepared to meet the needs of most transfers, who tend to be older and often are the first in their families to go to college. Community colleges are geared to helping students navigate unfamiliar territory; a highly competitive academic environment is “a whole different world,” says Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, a national honors society for junior colleges.

When students are admitted to big-name universities, he says, “I am reluctant sometimes to strongly encourage (them to go). . . . You’re not going to have your support system.”

Other educators fear community colleges that focus on their most talented students — many of whom could have gone to a four-year school — are straying from their core mission of serving less academically talented students. Today, for example, more than 200 of the nation’s nearly 1,200 community colleges are members of the National Collegiate Honors Council, up from a few dozen in 1989.

“As we brag about honors programs that are attracting really super-quality students, it could end up becoming a tail that wags the dog,” says Philip Day, chancellor of City College of San Francisco. He is spearheading a national drive to encourage academically underprepared candidates — and low-income minorities in particular — to pursue bachelor’s degrees.

Many of the four-year colleges involved in the initiative are historically black institutions, tribal colleges, and those serving large populations of Hispanics. See also this post about things to avoid when writing an application. Very interesting!

That debate is likely to continue — but some say it’s hard to argue with programs that encourage academic rigor. Yes, low-performing students must remain a priority of community colleges, says Jane Wellman, a researcher at the nonprofit Institute for Higher Education Policy. But honors programs help create “a culture of higher expectations for achievement,” she says. “And that helps everybody.”