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Alternatives to Four Years at College [SERIES]

This is part three of a week-long series on higher education costs in New Jersey. Read the entire series here.

For many families, not surprisingly, putting a child through four years of college can only be a fantasy. The rising costs of attending a four-year school, and the mounting debt that follows graduation, have forced different routes on students looking to succeed.

There are other options in New Jersey. Those options can be cheaper and, perhaps, more rewarding.

Salem Community College
Salem Community College (Townsquare Media)

Salem Community College (SCC), one of 19 in the state, has seen an increase in applications, enrollment and graduation since the start of the economic downturn.

Kevin Catalfamo, the school’s Executive Director of Enrollment Management and Marketing, said the beauty of schools like SCC is a series of niche programs that can get students directly into work upon graduation.

“We offer a scientific glass technology program. It’s the only kind in the nation, and currently we have almost 100 percent job placement for that program,” explained Catalfamo. “Just last year, over 90 percent of our students in our nursing program had jobs.”

The College Scorecard, provided by the White House, estimated the average net price for undergraduate in-state students at SCC is $4,625. The Scorecard showed no change in price from 2007 to 2009.

“This is a great choice. What it costs to get an associate’s degree – it’s a significant savings,” said Catalfamo.

Community Colleges as a Stepping Stone

A lot of students, however, use New Jersey’s community colleges as a stepping stone to four-year institutions. Getting the first few sets of credits at a community setting can provide a massive price difference compared to four full years at a private or public university.

Catalfamo explained, “You’re earning the same degree as someone who’s been at the same school for four years. However, you just shaved off half the costs.”

John Steiner, SCC’s Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, said community college is definitely the answer for many students.

“The students come out well-prepared,” he said of the school’s niche programs. “And the salaries are phenomenal.”

He added that community colleges across New Jersey have been forming partnerships to increase opportunity and convenience for students.

New Jersey students have also advanced themselves by utilizing the dozens of technical schools available in the state. Manalapan resident Javier Rodriguez, 38, recently gained his General Education Development (GED) and is in the beginning months of his time at Lincoln Technical Institute in Union.

“I think this route’s a little better because it takes less time. It’s only a year and a month,” Rodriguez explained.

His ultimate goal is to open his own business. He expects to receive a diploma for automotive technology through Lincoln, which would pave the way for certification in Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).

“You have a better chance at getting a job,” he said, noting that the hands-on experience at a regular college doesn’t compare to the in-depth offerings of a technical institute.

Rodriguez, in his last two months at Lincoln, will also have the opportunity to take on a paid internship in the exact field he wants to enter.

Despite the other options available, the nation’s workforce is overflowing with people who earned a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution. Tomorrow, we will look at the benefits of a true college experience; there’s much more than just a job, which isn’t always a definite.

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