After almost a decade of steady growth, enrollment at the state’s two-year county colleges has slowly but steadily declined, with fall enrollment dropping about 7 percent since peaking at about 180,000 in 2010-11.

The total number of credits taken by students statewide dropped about 5 percent in the same three-year period. That cost the 19 colleges more than $21.4 million in tuition revenue alone in 2012-13, based on an average cost of $108 per credit that year, according to data filed by the colleges with the National Center for Education Statistics.

College officials say some factors, such as a shrinking pool of high school graduates and a still-sluggish economy, are beyond their control. But they are also looking at new ways to provide both degree programs and career training that will help residents get jobs quickly and affordably.

Some colleges are seeing signs of improvement this year. Fall 2013 enrollment showed a slight increase in the number of full-time, first-time students compared with fall 2012. However, overall enrollment was still down about 3.5 percent, from almost 173,000 to about 167,000 students statewide, according to the colleges’ data.

Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said lower enrollment can be a sign of success if it means the colleges are doing a better job of helping students graduate quickly.

“The goal is quality, not just quantity,” he said. “We want to get them through a program and into a job.”

County colleges in New Jersey provide both work force training and more traditional college-level programs. College officials said it can be a challenge to try to meet all needs, especially in a changing economy and with tighter budgets.

Increasingly, students are using community colleges as an affordable starting point to a bachelor’s degree. More than 10,300 students transferred from a two-year to a four-year college in New Jersey in fall 2011. Enrollment at the state’s four-year public colleges in fall 2013 remained flat, with some showing slight increases and others slight decreases.

Most county colleges have transfer partnerships with local four-year colleges. This month, Rowan University and Gloucester County College took it step further, announcing a new partnership under which GCC will change its name to Rowan College at Gloucester County and offer conditional dual enrollment with Rowan University. Students who meet program criteria will automatically transfer to the university in Glassboro or may stay on the county college’s Sewell campus to finish their four-year degree.

College officials said anticipating enrollment and the job market has been challenging since the recession, especially in hard-hit South Jersey.

“It has been a roller coaster the last couple of years,” said Art Wexler, vice president of academic affairs at Atlantic Cape Community College. Fall enrollment tends to be better than the spring, and the college took a big hit in spring 2012, he said when enrollment dropped 6.5 percent.

Retention is a huge issue for county colleges, with only about 63 percent of students who enroll statewide returning for a second year. Many get bogged down in remedial courses and drop out. Both Cumberland County College and Atlantic Cape have begun programs to better identify and help students who need remediation.

Cumberland County spokesman Keith Wasserman said a redesigned development program puts students in college-level courses more quickly, encouraging them to stay in college. He said while they have seen a decrease in students, the number of credits they are taking is rising.

Atlantic Cape’s new program lets borderline students take college-level English courses with added supplemental instruction. Wexler said that, while still new, the program seems to be helping students succeed. The college also does a math boot camp to help students refresh their skills more quickly.

Some county college students want a job more than a degree. Farbman said county colleges are adding more certificate programs that provide short-term specialized training to help make students more attractive to employers. He cited advanced manufacturing training, which is offered at Cumberland County College, as an example of a short-term program that can place residents in local well-paying jobs.

Vocational training tends to be linked to the local economy. Atlantic Cape is building a new hospitality training center in Atlantic City, which will offer short-term noncredit programs designed to prepare residents for entry-level jobs. It is also one of six community colleges in the Northeast Resiliency Consortium sharing $23.5 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds to develop career-training programs.

“They’ll get the skills industry is saying it wants,” said Wexler, including customized training with employers. The college is also offering training in landscaping, construction and pipe-fitting, with some programs leading to industry certifications.

The cost of college can deter students from attending. Both Atlantic Cape and Cumberland have looked for ways to provide more financial aid. Atlantic Cape’s recent capital campaign raised almost $1.4 million for additional scholarships.

Wexler said new restrictions on Pell grants can make it harder for students to attend part-time while they work, and state TAG grants, while helpful, are targeted to the neediest students. He said most students also work, making both time and money a challenge.

Students preparing for the spring semester at Atlantic Cape last week said they were hoping to change and improve their lives, but must do so within the limits of what they can afford.

Katie Heuman, 27, of Egg Harbor City, already has a finance degree from Stockton and a job. But she wants to be a nurse, and is taking some pre-requisite courses in hopes of qualifying for Atlantic Cape’s registered nursing program. Right now, she is paying her way but hopes she can qualify for financial aid if she attends full-time.

Tasha Williams, 43, of Atlantic City, a working mother of three, said she’s been attending Atlantic Cape for a few years, slowly accumulating credits for an Office Systems Technology degree. It’s taking time, but she persists.

“You have to have skills now to be able to change jobs,” she said. “I have experience, but not the degree.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241