RED BANK, N.J. -- When Jennifer Buono decided where to enroll after high school, she chose little-known Brookdale Community College in central New Jersey over Rutgers University.
The bottom line, Buono said, was the bottom line.
"Brookdale is cheaper and you're getting the same education for less," said the 18-year-old education major. "And when I get out of school, I won't have all those student loans to pay off."
Across the country, many students have made similar decisions this semester. Though official figures aren't available, community college administrators say enrollment is way up, a product of the sour economy and rising tuition rates at four-year schools, including state universities such as Rutgers.
Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said many schools are reporting percentage increases in the double digits for enrollment. This comes at a time when community college costs also are creeping up and education budgets nearly everywhere are being squeezed by declining state revenue.
Barbara Grano, of Lakeland Community College outside Cleveland, said that with a 10 percent increase in students in the past year, classroom capacity is being pushed beyond its limits. Grano recently visited an algebra class where 34 students were squeezed in a room intended to hold 30 maximum.
"Students are begging their way into classes," Grano said. "They're saying, 'Please, let me take this class. I have to get in.'"
'All about access'
Such overcrowding troubles Kent. "We are all about access," she said, "And the idea that we might have to turn people away is appalling."
Recessions tend to inflate college enrollment. But this time is different because the increases are primarily at the community college level, said Barmak Nassirian, a policy analyst with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
With many large, public universities hiking tuition, Nassirian said it is not surprising that students are turning to commuter schools.
"For most families, the economic downturn doesn't manifest itself in depleted portfolios but instead forces them to make different choices," Nassirian said. "And for those people, community colleges present a safety net."
Renee Brock, a freshman at Brookdale Community College, says community colleges are even more attractive for students who must pay their own tuition.
"I would say that a lot of people whose parents are paying are going to the four-year colleges," she said. "But for those who are paying their own way, this is a good place to go."
Sophomore Graling High arrived at Brookdale uncertain if he wanted to pursue his original major, business administration, for a full four years. Now, he's sure.
"This place beats out a four-year school if you don't know what you want to do," he said. "If I'd gone to Rutgers, I might have wasted $20,000 trying to find out."