GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Richard Stockton College enrolled its largest freshman class ever this year, reflecting a decade-long growth trend that may have been helped along by a struggling economy and more scholarship funds.

The record 878 students, up from 845 last fall, were selected from a pool of 4,550 applicants. The average SAT score was 1143 for regularly admitted students, also a record high, Dean of Admissions John Iacovelli told the Stockton board of trustees Wednesday.

"We read the transcripts and we can see the number of students taking (Advanced Placement) and honors courses has zoomed up," he said.

The college also is budgeting a record $9.2 million in scholarship funds this year, up from $5.8 million last year.

"It is an incentive," President Herman J. Saatkamp said. "We're competing with private schools like Bucknell, Lehigh and Villanova."

Stockton freshmen interviewed after the board meeting said scholarships definitely played a role in their decision to attend.

"I got scholarships from Elizabethtown and Drexel and looked at STARS (the state community college scholarship)," said biotechnology major Kerri Ciccaglione, of Brooklawn, Camden County. "But this was better."

Kristina Parker, a nursing major from Pine Hill, Camden County, also looked at Rutgers and NJSTARS. She said Stockton's academic scholarship offer, and its proximity to home, clinched the deal.

Stockton offers several levels of academic scholarships, from $3,000 to about $18,000 per year, Iacovelli said. Forty-one percent of the incoming freshman class received a scholarship.

Rowan University also reported a large spike in freshman enrollment. The 1604 freshman class is 255 students larger than last year's class based on preliminary enrollment numbers provided by the college.

Paul Shelly, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, said some of the growth remains demographic - each year there are more high school graduates, which translates into more college freshmen.

But, he said, there are indications that the economy has encouraged more students to attend the less expensive state colleges rather than private colleges.

"I think there is also an increased reality that you can get just as good an education in a state college," he said. "It's just a shame we don't have more room."

The state colleges have complained about limited capacity for the past decade. Lacking state funds, they began their own expansions. Stockton limited new enrollment in 2005 and 2006, but has since added more housing and classroom space. A new College Center is set to open in 2011.

Iacovelli said financial aid is key in recruiting top students and reducing what is called "summer melt" - students who make deposits to a state college in May as a safety measure but then decide in August to attend elsewhere.

Iacovelli said Stockton's financial aid office awarded 6,914 aid packages by the end of August this year, compared with 4,934 last year.

More families also asked Stockton for special consideration of their financial aid award due to recent economic hardship such as unemployment. Last year, 81 families asked for extra help. This year, that number rose to 139 families.

The freshmen interviewed said money was definitely a consideration when they looked at colleges. Some never even considered a private college.

"I only looked at Rowan and Stockton and only applied here," said Julie Criscuolo, of Point Pleasant, Ocean County.

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