Community Colleges Boom as Economy Continues to Bust

By David Cruz

As the cost of higher education continues to skyrocket, more and more students are turning to community colleges as an affordable alternative, causing a boom in enrollment and pressures to fund expanded programs and facilities to keep up with the demand.

With 17,000 full and part-time students, Bergen Community College is the state’s largest county college. In fact, it has the state’s third largest college student population overall. And the enrollment numbers keep going up, 42 percent over the last decade, matching the trend for community colleges around the state.

“Our enrollment growth is up 30 percent over the past five years, so that takes us to an all-time record enrollment at New Jersey’s 19 community colleges,” said Lawrence Nespoli, President of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, a lobby for the state’s community colleges. “Our total enrollment as we speak here today is in excess of 400 thousand students.”

There are many reasons why a student would want to come to a two-year community college as opposed to a four-year college or university, but the bottom line reason seems to be, the bottom line.

“We all struggle with money,” says Victoria Barchetto, a sophomore at Bergen Community College. “I’d rather save money and come here first, and not even take out loans, so I’ll be able to not be in debt when I get out of college.”

On average, a semester at community college will cost you $3,000 or so, a far cry from the tens of thousands of dollars that a four-year college will cost you. Many students choose to take their core courses at a community college and save their major course work for the four-year institution. Bergen Community College Interim President Jose Adames says students are turning to community colleges in response to the tough economic times.

“The national pattern is that when the economy is poor, when there’s less opportunities for employment, [that is when] people take advantage of it and go to college,” said Adames.

That may sound like good news for community colleges – and it is, but even as the number of students skyrockets at Bergen Community, public funding has remained mostly flat, and the burden of funding operations has fallen increasingly on student tuition. Back in the mid-60s when the first community colleges opened, the plan was for state government, county government and tuition to equally cover operating costs. Today, the equation is much different, with students picking up over 50 percent of the costs while the state and the county take on only 11 and 13 percent respectively.

“We got a $5 million cut last year from the county,” said Adames. “This year we got flat funding. From the state, we’re [also] getting flat funding.”

It’s a challenging environment, despite the possibility of future state funding for capitol projects, like Bergen Community’s year-old $5 million student center. New facilities are great, but paying for staff and keeping the lights on is a burden that students will continue to have to bear because, in this economy, the costly alternative of a four-year college is still, unbearable.