The aircraft mechanics program at Salt Lake Community College is booming. Fall quarter may be eight months away, but the program's waiting list already numbers 10. Students still wanting a slot in the program this spring don't have much of a chance. That waiting list: 55.

There is a good reason for all of this interest in the program's 100 slots - jobs. After completing the 18-month program, a graduate can expect to earn a starting salary of $20,000, a starting wage equal to or greater than that of many university graduates.And the jobs are there. SLCC instructor Cliff Wiesenberg reports that as World War II- and Korean War-trained mechanics retire, jobs across the country go unfilled. In some locations, many experienced mechanics now earn more than pilots. Last year, there were 20,000 openings across the country.

The peace-time military cannot begin to fill all of those openings, so that's where a community college like SLCC steps in. By providing FAA-certified mechanics, SLCC helps keep the airlines and Utah's economy humming.

Higher education has always played a significant role in recognizing and satisfying the needs of a rapidly changing society. Within the diversity of higher education, community colleges have accepted the vocational role, training and retraining workers and giving them specific skills.

This is in addition to the more traditional academic offerings that prepare students who will continue their studies at a four-year institution after graduating from the community college.

However, because they are smaller and lack the high-profile research of their bigger sisters, community colleges, in the past, were often overlooked and misunderstood by the public.

That has changed in recent years. Students have discovered community colleges as places to get a good education at reasonable cost close to home. They have found a community-college education is the route to a good job such as aircraft mechanic. The popularity of community colleges is soaring.

In the last five years, the enrollment at Utah Valley Community College has doubled, reaching nearly 7,000. For every Utah County freshman who enters Brigham Young University, four others enroll at UVCC.

Since 1963, SLCC enrollment has climbed from fewer than 1,000 to almost 7,000 full-time equivalent students. When part-time students are added, more than 10,000 attend SLCC.

Actually, enrollment would have been even higher if full funding for enrollment growth had been appropriated by the Legislature. Last fall, SLCC turned away 3,000 students who couldn't get the classes they needed because of inadequate funding.

The statistics don't really tell the whole enrollment story. SLCC President O.D. Carnahan calls his institution the "people's college." The same could be said of the state's other community colleges.

Their students include high school graduates, adults returning to college after retirement, displaced or unemployed people seeking new careers or improved skills, part-time students with full-time jobs, full-time students with part-time jobs and any other combination.

The typical SLCC student is in his late 20's and must work to support a family while taking classes. After divorce or death of a spouse, many female students enroll to prepare for jobs.

Even with such a wide diversity of students, the flexible community colleges can appeal to them all, offering a smorgasbord of educational offerings.

This month, Utah's five community colleges, SLCC, UVCC, Snow, Dixie and College of Eastern Utah, are celebrating national Community College Month as a way to spotlight their achievements. It's a record of which they can be proud.

Utah's community colleges fulfill a vital function within the state's higher education system. The state's students should consider themselves fortunate that such choice exists among Utah's educational resources.