Chris Barnes is a month away from the final exams for his first semester at Normandale Community College, but he's already planning for when he finishes his second year and transfers to Minnesota State University, Mankato.

"I'm saving a ton of money" compared with the cost of living on campus at a four-year school, said Barnes, 18, who has "a five-minute commute" within Bloomington to Normandale.

For an increasing number of students like Barnes, community college has always been a part of the plan -- as a stepping stone, not a fallback option.

Two-year colleges once were looked upon as offering a plan-B education, derisively called "the 13th grade" by high school grads who were on their way to traditional four-year schools. But that image has changed, say high school counselors, college administrators and the students themselves. Increasingly, community colleges have become the institution of first choice.

"When I was growing up, going to college was defined as finding a four-year school with a nationally ranked football team," said Kim Mai, a coordinator at AchieveMpls Career & College Centers of the Minneapolis public schools. "There definitely was a stigma [attached to community college]. But not now."

"The pendulum absolutely has swung," agreed Barbara Kurtz, lead secondary school counselor in the St. Paul public schools. "When I started counseling 10 years ago, when people thought of college it was a four-year college. We've seen a shift away from that."

As a result, attendance at community colleges is skyrocketing. Figures for the recently launched school year aren't available yet, but through last year, national attendance had jumped 22 percent in five years, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

There are multiple reasons behind that, said Torrion Amie, Normandale's director of advising and counseling. The biggest one is the faltering economy, which is having an impact on three levels: Attracting people who are looking to get into the workforce quicker, motivating people who want to learn new skills and attracting families that are looking for ways to cut down on ever-climbing college costs by having their kids live at home for the first two years.

"It's a very cost-effective method of getting a degree," he said.

Mai agreed. "It's allowing students who couldn't afford any other way to get an education," she said. "It's really allowing students to see possibilities they didn't see before."

Fast track to a paycheck

One of those possibilities is a profession, Amie said. In many fields, such as nursing and law enforcement, a two-year associate degree is enough to launch a career.

"Students like the fact that they can get out in two years and go right into the workforce," he said.

George Mountin, a counselor at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, recalled a case in which a student pegged as potential Ivy League material said that he wanted to go to a technical school, instead.

"He wanted to go into aviation electronics, and he found a 24-month program in that," Mountin said. "He went through the program and, of course, excelled at it. Now he's making more money that I am -- and I have a master's degree."

As for all the expectations that he would enroll in college, "You can't pigeonhole people into one option," Mountin added.

Danielle Jastrow concurred with that assessment. One of Mai's fellow coordinators at AchieveMpls, she said that their goal is to match each student with his or her best option, whether that's Harvard or a community college.

"It's all about finding the right fit," she said. "What is the student looking for in terms of a degree and in an experience?"

California has led the way in using community colleges as a feeder program for its major institutions. Nearly 60 percent of the graduates of the California State University system transfer from a California Community College, according to the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

Transferring to a four-year college has gotten much easier here thanks to the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) spells out which courses and credits transfer from one of the state's 32 colleges and universities -- 25 of which are two-year schools -- to another.

"But you have to plan carefully," said Igor Grinberg, a 34-year-old Apple Valley man who has returned to school at Normandale after several years in the workforce to earn a degree that he hopes will open doors to a promotion. He'll have enough credits to graduate in December, but he's returning for another semester to take a couple of classes he'll need to transfer to the University of Minnesota. He said he wants to make sure he has everything he needs.

Society's attitudes about secondary education is changing. In a Pew survey released last year, 94 percent of parents said they expect their child to attend college.

"Forty or 50 years ago, this wasn't something everybody did," Jastrow said. "This idea that everybody expects to go to college is a huge shift. As counselors, that makes it really important for us to match goals with inspiration."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392