Christopher Thomas still has the recruitment letter the University of Pennsylvania sent him when he was a senior at Philadelphia's Central High School in 1993.

But Thomas would not actually get to the Ivy League campus for 19 more years - three children, several jobs, and a lot of life filled the interim. He finally arrived through a route some might find unusual - the local community college.

Thomas, 37, graduated from the Community College of Philadelphia last year and entered Penn in the fall with the goal of becoming a teacher.

"If I hadn't become a teen parent, then this is what I would have done," Thomas said. "This was something I was supposed to do."

Every year, top high school students around the country aggressively play the high-stakes college admissions game, trying everything they can to win a coveted spot at one of the nation's eight Ivy League schools.

Thomas shows that there is another way in, and he has company. Since 2009, 262 students transferred into Penn's liberal and professional studies program, which offers nontraditional students the same classes, faculty, and degrees but uses a separate admissions process. About half came from area community colleges.

Among them is Michael Pfaff, 25, a Bucks County Community College graduate who went into the Army out of high school, then decided to pursue higher education.

Another is Danielle Magouirk, 27, who got her bachelor's in psychology from Penn in 2009 after completing Gloucester County College. She is finishing a graduate degree in school psychology at Rider University.

All three belonged to Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for students at two-year colleges, which got the attention of Penn.

Increasingly, highly selective colleges including some of the Ivies are welcoming outstanding community college transfers, who tend to perform well and participate in the life of the university, said Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, based in Jackson, Miss.

"There has been a misperception that those who attend community colleges are going there only out of second chance. That's not true," he said.

The students can attend community college for less cost, participate in a rigorous honors program, then transfer to and graduate from a highly selective school, he said.

At Cornell University, 28 percent of 561 transfer students this fall came from two-year colleges, including community colleges, a spokesman said.

Princeton by policy does not accept transfers.

Harvard admits only 12 transfer students per year from a pool of about 1,500 applicants, spokesman Jeff A. Neal said. (Penn has admitted 15 from community colleges to its regular program since 2009.)

Columbia in New York takes quite a few into its general studies program, which serves nontraditional students who have had a least a one-year break from high school. About 35 percent of the 1,600 students hail from community colleges, said Anna O'Sullivan, a spokeswoman.

As at Penn, that program uses a different but equally rigorous admissions process, and students take the same classes as regular undergraduates. Jan Kargulewicz, 32, graduated magna cum laude from Columbia in 2012, after having transferred in from Montgomery County Community College. He was hired by the Vanguard Group in Malvern, where he is being groomed to be a manager.

As a high school student, Thomas had his heart set on attending Howard University, a historically black college. He was choosing his dorm and figuring out his meal plan. Then reality set in.

He didn't know he had to fill out financial-aid forms - he saw his guidance counselor only once while at Central and didn't get that advice at home - so he missed the deadline. He also found out he was going to become a father.

As a result, Thomas wound up at Temple University, which helped him get a grant. He dropped out after one semester.

"I really had lost interest in academics," he said.

Over the next 15 years, he worked a variety of office jobs. Friends kept encouraging him to go back to school.

It wasn't easy. He continued working at a suburban restaurant, taking three buses to get there and back. He made it through community college without his own computer - visiting his aunt's house in a pinch.

Academically, he was happy. He was inducted into the honor society, which caught Penn's attention. Penn sent him another recruitment pitch - and this time, he was ready.

About two-thirds of his credits transferred. He entered as a junior.

His first semester was a challenge, largely because of the copious amount of required reading.

At one point, he wondered: "Did I make the right decision? Is this the place for me?"

Friends helped him overcome that moment.

"I don't think that moment will return," he said.

The community college, he said, prepared him.

"They don't shorten the goal line at CCP," he said.

He hopes to teach in an underserved school in Philadelphia and some day return to Central.

Pfaff, a graduate of Bensalem High, also was recruited to Penn via Phi Theta Kappa, for which he served as local treasurer.

Out of high school, he enlisted in the Army, where he served on active duty for four years. Then he enrolled at the Bucks community college, with financial aid through the GI Bill.

He earned his associate degree in criminal justice and had planned on going to St. Joseph's until he received recruitment material from Penn, Cornell, and Columbia.

"At first, I was a little afraid to give it a try," he said, but his wife encouraged him.

As a criminology major at Penn, he has moved on to loftier goals. He hopes to attend Penn's law school.

Like Thomas, he found the workload at Penn to be "intense," requiring about 30 hours of work outside of class per week, compared with 10 hours at the community college.

"But I've been able to stand up and meet the challenge," he said.

He credits the community college in part for the opportunity.

"I don't think I would have gotten accepted here without it," he said.

Kargulewicz emigrated from Poland when he was a toddler and graduated from Upper Merion High School in 1998.

He wasn't ready for college: "I was just trying to figure out what I wanted out of life."

He worked at a coffee shop among other jobs and traveled. In 2007, he decided he was ready.

Montgomery County Community College was around the corner from his apartment, and the price was right. He qualified for the honors program, which covered tuition.

"It was a safe environment to try going back to school," he said.

He embraced the experience, becoming editor of the student newspaper, vice president of the writers club, and a member of the honor society.

A professor suggested he apply to Columbia. To afford it, he worked part-time jobs washing gym clothes for the athletic department and writing Google ads for a marketing company from his laptop to pay for university housing, books, and food.

"It was a juggling act, but I was able to pay it all out of pocket," he said.

He still has quite a bit of tuition debt from his two years, but said the experience was worth it.

"It's been rewarding in almost every part of my life," he said.

Magouirk, a graduate of Gloucester Catholic, wasn't sure of a career path. As an honors graduate, she qualified for free tuition at the county college and figured it was a good way to explore: "I funded my college education on my own, so it was a huge factor."

At an honor society conference in Seattle, she learned that Penn - the school she always wanted to attend - accepted transfers. It was a major transition, going from Gloucester, which provided a close-knit, homey environment, to Penn, where she sometimes found herself in classes with 300 students.

But she aced it, graduating with a 3.8 GPA.

"The teachers I had at Gloucester County," she said, "really prepared me to be successful at Penn."

(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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