Rutgers University's Lifelong Learning Center, dedicated Friday at Atlantic Cape Community College, represents a new level of commitment to area students by the state university.

The $7.5 million building - the first built by a New Jersey four-year college on a community college campus - is also a recognition of one of the most powerful trends in higher education.

More and more students are beginning their college careers at two-year institutions. In 2011, about 38 percent of all students graduating with a bachelor's degree in New Jersey started their education at a community college.

You don't need to be a professor to understand why. The rising cost of a college education has become a national scandal. The U.S. Department of Education says the average tuition at four-year public colleges increased 15 percent between 2008 and 2010. The average student loan debt in 2011 was more than $23,000.

While experts bemoan this burden, some students have taken it upon themselves to reduce that cost by attending community colleges for two years. Students at New Jersey's community colleges pay an average of $8,332 less per year in tuition and fees than students at the state's four-year public colleges.

Of course, money's not the only reason that some students choose community college. Many of these students are older, are working and are looking for a flexible education that fits their schedule.

A total of 140 students have taken advantage of the opportunity to continue their education with Rutgers professors at the Atlantic Cape campus and graduate with a degree from Rutgers Camden since the university began offering the option in 2006.

The enthusiasm of such students - who were willing to attend Rutgers classes in a trailer - convinced the university to invest in the building.

That investment shows a shift in attitudes toward community colleges, which were once considered the stepchildren of higher education. State colleges haven't always been enthusiastic about accepting transfer students, or their credits. In the words of Rutgers professor Raphael Caprio, the larger schools were "gatekeepers gone bad."

Now, more four-year institutions are partnering with community colleges. Richard Stockton College just signed a dual-enrollment agreement with Atlantic Cape. Cumberland County College students can pursue a bachelor's degree at its University Center, and Ocean County College hosts courses from Kean University.

This all means more opportunities - and more affordable opportunities - for area students.