Community colleges becoming increasingly popular choice

2-year programs gaining respect as gateway to 4-year schools


Staff Writer

FILEPHOTO Middlesex County College, EdisonFILEPHOTO Middlesex County College, Edison As college-application deadlines loom, many New Jersey high school seniors will visit four-year schools, send out expensive applications and scramble to write that perfect college essay — but many others will not.

An increasing number of graduating high school seniors in New Jersey, more than 50 percent of them, will attend a community college come September, according to the New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC).

“It is a fact that the senior colleges [in New Jersey] do not have enough space and capacity to serve all students who want to enroll in them,” said Lawrence Nespoli, president of the NJCCC.

More students than ever before are enrolling in county colleges, Nespoli said.

“The growth is really dramatic,” he said. “There have been several growth spurts in enrollment. We’re in the middle of one now. We’re at an all-time record high, and there seems to be no slowing down.”

Nespoli said of the 350,000 students attending a community college in New Jersey last year, 200,000 of them were enrolled in an academic transfer program, where the student will take two years of academic classes, then transfer to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

“Community colleges have come of age,” he said. “They’ve gained a better reputation, and they’re becoming the college of choice for many students because they have affordability and accessibility.”

Gone are the days of referring to community colleges as junior colleges or the 13th grade. With the creation of the NJSTARS program, unveiled earlier this year, by then-Gov. James E. McGreevey, Nespoli said the best and brightest high school students are turning to community colleges.

“Community colleges are historically the calling card of affordability and accessibility,” Nespoli said. “But now, the state is saying to high school students, ‘Check out your local community college and the state will provide your tuition.’ There’s not a program like that in the country,” he said.

Created when McGreevey signed the current year’s budget into law, NJSTARS will provide up to five free semesters of classes to high school graduates who rank in the top 20th percentile of their graduating class, Nespoli said.

“The notion that a community college is a place you go for reasons of accessibility and affordability is changing. Now you have valedictorians with high SAT scores enrolling. That’s a new theme,” he said.

This year, Middlesex County College accepted 40 students through the NJSTARS program, said Peter Rice, dean of admissions at Middlesex County College.

Rice said he expects more high school students to take advantage of the program as it becomes more publicized.

“It’s still a little soon. Now that the word is out, we expect that number to increase,” he said.

But even before the creation of NJSTARS, county colleges were experiencing an admission increase. Rice said MCC has experienced a 3 percent increase in its overall enrollment figures since 2001.

“Right now, we’ve had the most full-time students we’ve ever had at the college. For the first time ever, we have over 13,000 attending at one time. It’s high,” he said.

Rice hypothesizes the enrollment growth at community colleges is due in part to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“September 11 had a lot to do with people reassessing their careers,” Rice said. “Whatever they were doing was not as important as helping people, so that nursing and health-related programs have had tremendous increases.”

At MCC, Rice said the number of nursing program applicants has tripled since 9/11.

“Nursing has become tremendously competitive,” he said.

This year, 700 applicants vied for one of 60 seats in MCC’s nursing program. In 1998, MCC received only 150 applications for 40 open seats, Rice said.

“In a good year, we’d get 200 applications, so that number has tripled,” he said.

Other regional community colleges

have reported similar increases in their nursing programs.

Ocean County College (OCC) in Toms River received 800 applications from county residents looking to become nurses, said Jim Brown, OCC’s dean of Health Sciences and Human Performance.

There are only 60 seats available.

Because of the growing demand for nurses and the increasing number of applications, OCC will expand its nursing program to offer 20 more seats with the One Day Per Week R.N. Program. Adding 20 seats a year for the next two years, the program will allow nursing students to receive the bulk of their technical training through a Web-assisted program, plus work one day a week at a local hospital, where they will receive hands-on, clinical experience.

Brown said the program, the only one of its kind in New Jersey, may be the way to end the nursing shortage in the state.

“If it works, it could really be the answer to the nursing shortage,” Brown said. “People realize nursing is a good profession that is going to be growing.

“When the economy is really good, people do whatever they feel like trying. When the economy takes a downturn, they come back into nursing because there is a stability there, and the pay is good.”

Two years out of nursing school, a nurse can expect to take home $50,000 a year, Brown said.

“A lot of people like to get into the field right away. As soon as they get out of school, they go into the hospitals,” Brown said. “Then the hospital can pay for their R.N. (registered nurse) completion — from an R.N. to a B.S.N. (bachelor of science in nursing). What they have to pay for college is cut in half. The county college rates — it’s the best bargain in town.”

And potential nurses are not the only ones taking advantage of them, said Tara Kelly, OCC’s executive director of public relations.

“We accept everyone,” she said. “County colleges have an open, rolling enrollment, so it’s not competitive. You only have to be 18 or have a high school diploma. All county colleges have the same admissions.”

To become a student at a county college, Kelly said prospective students only have to take a basic skills test, called the Accuplacer. No matter what the results, anyone interested in obtaining an education at a community college will not be turned away.

“No one will be told they can’t come to college based on the results,” she said. “It’s a placement test.”

Anyone who does not score well on the test may have to enroll in developmental classes that would strengthen math, reading or writing skills before they begin taking college-credit classes, Kelly said.

“We make sure students are prepared to succeed,” she said.

Kelly said the education those students receive is comparable to the education students attending a four-year public or private college institution would receive.

“It’s the same content, just a different location, really. Don’t cheat yourself; you really get the same education at a county college as at a four-year school,” she said.

Nespoli said one advantage community colleges have over the four-year schools is the caliber of educators hired at county colleges.

“We hire teachers — people who aspire to be the best teacher, not the best researcher,” he said.

Four-year school faculty are hired and tenured based on how many articles and books they publish, Nespoli said.

Not so at community colleges.

“That’s not how they’re promoted here,” he said. “They’re promoted here because they are excellent teachers. Teaching is the highest priority, not how many books they publish. We look at teaching evaluations.”

Kim Toomey has been the registrar at Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County since 1993.

She sees several reasons for an increase in community college enrollment.

“The SAT requirements are getting more stringent and more competitive. More students are going to school, and with the population explosion, acceptance to four-year schools is becoming more difficult,” she said.

“County colleges offer a highly affordable education. Students can stay home and complete their first two years of their bachelor’s degree,” she said. “But we offer a lot of options for different kinds of students. Open enrollment also [offers admission to] students who need a brush-up in basic skills.