This year, when many of America's marketplaces were darkened by a poor economy, one light shining brightly and is taking one small step toward lighting the pathway toward the future.

That bright spot is Lehigh Carbon Community College. Enrollment on its Carbon County campus shot up a walloping 25 percent from 334 students to an all-time high of 418.

"This year the largest spike ever," noted Jeanne Miller, director of Carbon Schuylkill Educational Services.

Possible factors include: the unemployed or underemployed returning to school for retraining; veterans learning a career under the new G.I. Bill; graduating high schoolers that benefited from LCCC's dual enrollment program.

Other possiblilties include the honors programs that offer free tuition and cross-discipline courses, ease of transfer to four-year colleges, and availability of certain four-year college programs at LCCC.

LCCC attributes its success to a general change that has swept through community colleges. Once they were principally a two-year school focused on graduating students with an associate degree. Over the past decade, community colleges have refocused themselves toward becoming the first two years of a four-year college degree.

"Four-year colleges are looking at community colleges in a different way now," Miller said. "They see a student that has gone through two years of college is more likely to graduate.

"Colleges look at a student that comes from a community college as one who has already shown that they can handle college work. That's why schools like Bucknell and Lehigh are recruiting community college students."

Several colleges have made it even easier offering classes right on LCCC campuses. At the Schnecksville campus, Kutztown University offers nursing classes. Temple has engineering classes; Albright has programs in accounting, applied psychology, organizational behavior, business administration, crime and justice, and information systems. And Bloomsburg runs a bachelor of elementary education program at LCCC's Morgan Campus in Tamaqua.

Joe Davis is a professor of teacher education at LCCC's Carbon campus.

"We are seeing adult students coming back to major in education because of job security," he said. "I taught a class with three guys with master's degrees in electrical engineering. They were laid off and decided to become teachers. They were not encouraged to be teachers when they got out of high school."

Davis is also seeing students returning to school on the new G.I. Bill for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It offers four years of education paid by the federal government.

Both experienced workers and military veterans tend to be successful students according to Davis. Students of Carbon and Schuylkill have a good work ethic and appreciate that they are getting an education. They work hard more than others, said Davis.

Working hard is a way to be rewarded at LCCC. Hard working high school students at Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Palmerton, and Panther Valley high schools may take dual enrollment classes taught by LCCC professors. They earn both high school and college credits.

Some students have earned more than 12 college credits, saving them a semester and hundreds of dollars toward their 60 credits for a two-year degree.

Good students can qualify for the honors program. Beside offering classes that are more interesting and challenging as part of a learning community, tuition is free for the two-year program, and the students are well-positioned for scholarships toward a four-year degree. Honor students are selected by LCCC based on being in the top 10 percent of their class, their SAT score and/or an entrance placement test.

Davis cites being small as a virtue of LCCC Carbon campus.

"We have a sense of community," Davis said. "Students know who I am. I know who they are. I'm not just a face"

LCCC continues to offer two-year degrees in fields such as biotechnology and nursing, although an increasing number of students are opting for liberal arts as a gateway to a four-year education.

The college attracts students from 17 to 68 years of age.

"My 68 year-old is now a graduate student at East Stroudsburg University," said Davis, who teaches students to be teachers. He noted that school districts often prefer older graduates because of the life experience and maturity they bring to the position.

For information about LCCC Carbon Campus, call (610) 799-1060, or see www.lccc.edu