College students in New Jersey can save more than $16,000 on tuition and fees by getting an associate degree from a community college, then transferring to a state four-year public college to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Taking such a route to a college degree is not new, but the number of state students choosing to start their college careers in a two-year college is at an all-time high. College officials, however, are warning that students must plan carefully to assure they have a seamless transition and don’t wind up repeating courses or taking so long to graduate they lose the financial advantage.

“The future is based on transfers,” said Jeff Hand, vice president of strategic enrollment management at Rowan University. “But as more students do this, there also is more competition. It’s not open enrollment where everyone gets in.”

In fall 2006, 7,519 students transferred from a community college to a four-year college in New Jersey, making up almost 60 percent of all transfer students.

By fall 2011, 10,290 undergraduate students had transferred from a community college to a New Jersey four-year college. Most of them, almost 8,900, enrolled in a public state college. Statewide, they made up 65 percent of all transfer students.

About 38 percent of all students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from a New Jersey college in 2011 were previously enrolled in a community college, according to a September report by the National Student Clearinghouse. That ranks the state 30th nationally; Texas is first with 78 percent of students starting at a community college. The national average is 45 percent.

College officials say the economy has played a major role in convincing families to consider the transfer option. Based on data colleges filed with the National Center for Education Statistics, the average per-year cost for tuition and fees at a New Jersey community college for 2012-13 is $4,149, compared with $12,481 at the four-year public colleges, a savings of $8,332 per year. Living at home saves about another $8,000 to $10,000 a year on room and board.

The state NJSTARS scholarship program has also convinced highly ranked high school graduates to give two-year colleges a try.

“Ten years ago, it was less socially acceptable to go to community college,” said Laura Wills, coordinator of transfer services at Ocean County College “Today it is fiscally responsible.”

Jared Kidd played football at Holy Spirit High School, graduated in 2007 and, just as with many of his classmates, wanted to go away to college, maybe even to Florida.

“But I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Kidd, 23, of Atlantic City.

So rather than spend a lot of money finding out, his mom suggested he attend Atlantic Cape Community College. He completed his associate degree in two and a half years, then transferred to the Rutgers University center on the Atlantic Cape campus. He will graduate in May with a Rutgers degree in labor studies, and no debt. He’s now thinking about applying to law school.

“I really didn’t want to go to a community college at first,” Kidd admitted. “But now I advocate for them. Economically, this is the smartest thing to do, and I’m still getting the same degree from Rutgers.”

That’s a message colleges are trying harder to promote.

Natasha Patel, 23, of Egg Harbor Township, used to live in Cherry Hill, where she said attending a community college was not popular.

“You were just perceived as being smarter if you went to a four-year college,” she said. “But I went to Atlantic Cape. It was affordable, and I transferred all my credits to Rutgers. Now my parents say it is the smartest thing to do.”

Patel will get her bachelor’s degree in political science from the new Rutgers’ Lifelong Learning Center at Atlantic Cape; she then plans to attend Rutgers Law School in Camden.

A 2007 law sponsored by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Burlington, Camden, helped make the transfer process more seamless and assure that students can get full credit at state four-year colleges for a degree earned at a community college. A website, NJtransfer.org, helps students navigate college requirements and plan their four-year degree.

More four-year colleges are also developing transfer agreements with community colleges and even offering four-year program courses on the community college campuses. Rutgers has a new learning center at Atlantic Cape and Stockton just signed a dual-enrollment agreement with the community college. Kean University has classroom space at Ocean County College. Cumberland County College has a University Center dedicated to four-year college programs.

The partnerships benefit students, but also the colleges, which can better track student progress for data collection. Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. noted that students who transfer before graduating from a community college are not counted toward that college’s graduation rate, or in the graduation rate of the four-year college since they didn’t start there as freshmen. The result is an incomplete picture of student progress.

Increased popularity has also made the transfer process more competitive, and not all students are accepted to the four-year college of their choice.

This year, almost 2,700 students applied to transfer to Richard Stockton College; 1,067 were enrolled. Dean of Enrollment Management John Iacovelli said some chose other colleges, but others simply weren’t qualified. The college anticipates enrolling about 1,000 transfer students each fall, and the average grade-point average has been increasing to about 2.7, or about a B-minus. For more competitive programs, it’s much higher.

“The best advice I can give any student is to get the highest grade-point average, as close to 4.0 as you can at the community college,” Iacovelli said. “It will open doors to other senior colleges, and at that level your high school transcript doesn’t matter. You have a clean slate.”

He said more private colleges, also feeling the economic pinch, are recruiting community college graduates, who are viewed as a good risk because they have shown they can do college-level work.

Atlantic Cape program officer Wendy Gray said twice the number of private colleges have expressed interest in their college fair and transfer days in October. So far, about 40 colleges have registered to participate.

The College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League College, has taken out ads saying that a third of their students transferred from community colleges and 60 percent of their bachelor of arts degree students have taken courses at a community college.

Still, not all community college credits may transfer, and students can end up spending more time and money to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Hand said it is difficult to transfer into the engineering program at Rowan, and it is getting hard to get into the biological sciences as students compete for potential slots in the new Rowan medical school.

“Students have to take the right courses at the community colleges,” he said.

If they show promise, it can pay off.

Gray said students should see a counselor as soon as they enroll, not when they’re ready to transfer.

“The (four-year) colleges will work with students, but the courses have to fit,” she said. “The college may take the credits, but students may still have to take extra courses to meet the requirements of the program they want.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241