When a team led by Harvard-educated anthropologist Isaiah Nengo discovered the 13-million-year-old skull of a young ape in Kenya, the news made headlines around the world.

What’s also surprising is where the Kenyan-American professor is teaching: not at a major research university, but at De Anza College, a two-year, public institution in California.

Nengo chose De Anza “because I really, really believe in the mission of the community college, a place with open admission — we don’t ask what [secondary] school you went to and what your grades were — where you can reinvent yourself.” He has arranged scholarships for De Anza students from disadvantaged backgrounds to accompany him on summer digs in Kenya’s Turkana Basin.

Nengo’s remarkable accomplishments draw attention to the unique role the 1,100 community colleges in the U.S. play. Almost half of American undergraduates and 96,000 international students begin their studies at such schools. Typically, annual tuition is half that of public four-year institutions. Many offer intensive English classes, which help international students to succeed in their studies.

Other countries may offer strong career and technical institutes, but not ones that give students this kind of head start on a university diploma. (Many students enroll at the midway point in a four-year college, having earned two years of credits toward a bachelor’s degree from the community college.)

Not well known

Students wearing graduation gowns and mortar boards (© AP Images)
Community college associate degrees and credits can count toward bachelor’s degrees. (© AP Images)

“International students by and large don’t know there are so many different kinds of higher-education institutions here,” says Ding-Jo Currie, a California State University, Fullerton education professor.

When they learn of the possibility of transferring to a university, “they say, ‘Really? You can do that?'” says the former Coastline Community College president.

It’s neither guaranteed nor easy, but it happens each year for hundreds at Green River College in Auburn, Washington, near Seattle. The best get into top universities, where they stood little chance of gaining admission straight out of secondary school.

“Green River inspired me to believe in myself,” says Aki Satouchi, a Japanese student now at the University of Michigan. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I first came here, then I found my purpose.”

Green River “was a great stepping stone,” says Indira Pranabudi of Jakarta, Indonesia, who made the jump to the Ivy League. She graduated from Brown University at age 19 and now is a software engineer in Boston.

“We’re a good, soft landing spot” for newcomers to the United States, says Wendy Stewart, vice president of international programs at Green River.

Man walking up staircase in very large foyer painted yellow, red and white (© Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Nine percent of international students choose community colleges, such as El Camino in California. (© Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Classes are smaller than at big universities, says Currie, “and faculty are very engaged. Their main focus is teaching.”

A key attraction for international students, according to Martha Parham, vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges, is that they “can come here, get a little more comfortable with the culture and language, transfer to a four-year university and save a lot of money.”

Some may end up on a newsworthy archeological dig far from America.