RED BANK, N.J. -- When Jennifer Buono decided where to enroll after high school, she chose little-known Brookdale Com-munity 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.
Norma Kent, a spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges, said many schools are reporting percentage increases in the double digits for enrollment.
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.
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 Reg-istrars and Admissions Officers.
With many large, public universities hiking tuition, Nassirian said it is not surprising that students are turning to commuter schools.
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.''
Community colleges also are increasingly attractive because they are developing ways students can stay beyond the two years of coursework it takes to receive an associate's degree.
Brookdale has an operating agreement with several colleges and universities that allows students enrolled in a ''communiversity'' program to use the Internet and other means to get a bachelor's degree without transferring.
Brookdale sophomore Graling High is considering the communiversity, but would prefer to be among the 72 percent of Brookdale graduates each year who move to a four-year campus.
High arrived at Brookdale uncertain if he wanted to pursue his original major, business administration, for a full four years. Now in his second year at the community college, he's sure of his choice.
''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.''
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