Community colleges are hot these days, and not just with photo-op seeking politicians. They’re an increasingly popular choice for 18-22 year-olds from the upper middle class, thanks to cheap tuition, a career focus, smoother transfer options and growing public respect for the sector’s academic chops.
Nationwide, 22 percent of college students with annual family incomes over $100,000 attended community colleges last year, up from 16 percent four years ago, according to a study  by Sallie Mae.
“Community college gradually is gaining wider acceptance as the default option out of high school,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.
Relatively affluent young students are typically better-prepared academically and have a good chance of earning a degree. They are also more likely to attend full-time, require less remediation than their peers and can be cheaper for community colleges to educate.
But this group is also demanding, as traditional-age students want a full campus experience with amenities like fitness centers and extracurricular activities, which can mean new buildings and strained student service budgets. They are also more likely to seek out counselors, experts said.
"You have more students coming to our campuses who see themselves transferring," said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan, and who sometimes view community college as a "stepping stone."
Raritan Valley Community College, which is located in a suburban swath of northern New Jersey, has welcomed a surge of young students. Many of those students would have attended a nearby four-year college in the past, administrators said, such as Rutgers University or Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Over the five years before 2011, Raritan Valley’s total enrollment went up by 32 percent. But the number of students under 21 years old increased by 49 percent, from 2,472 to 3,675, while older students accounted for a much smaller portion of the growth. (See table here .) Full-time students are also gaining ground in the mix.
Casey Crabill, the college’s president, said the college hasn’t studied which four-year institutions students are passing up to come to Raritan Valley. They know, however, that more students are arriving from two wealthy counties.
Historically about two-thirds of Raritan Valley’s students have come from Hunterdon and Somerset Counties -- which are among the top 10 most affluent counties in the U.S. -- and that proportion hasn’t changed as overall enrollment has grown.
“Our market share from those counties is reaching deeper into the high school graduate markets,” Crabill said.
The recession has played a big role in Raritan Valley’s recent enrollment bump. “A lot of Wall Street lives in our counties,” said Crabill, and many of those families suddenly had less money in 2008, making community college a more appealing option.
New Jersey’s public universities have increased their tuition in response to state budget cuts, but they remain a cheaper option than most private colleges. The state has also seen a large population increase in the traditional college-age bracket, which means more competition for slots at public institutions, particularly at the increasingly selective flagship, Rutgers.
The competition is contributing to the growing number of young students at Raritan Valley, Crabill said. “It’s like a wave.”
New Jersey’s experience is not unique, Katsinas said. The research center estimates that the total number of 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide increased by one million between 2009 and 2012.
“A lot of folks in the middle class are taking a look at community colleges,” said Walter G. Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “The increases are significant.”
Raritan Valley has had plenty of recent success stories, including students who have transferred to Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley and other high-profile institutions. Crabill said the publicity has helped convince more traditional students that the two-year college is a good choice.
“Our profile peaked at the same time” that the the recession began, she said.
The college has taken many steps to respond to the changing demographics on its main campus. To improve student amenities, college officials remodeled the cafeteria and expanded and updated the fitness center. The college also created a first year experience office and related programming. A new student life and leadership center is in the works, with a related fund-raising campaign launched in 2010.
The increase in full-time students has helped to offset those costs, said Crabill, because part-time students use student services, too, without paying full-time tuition.
So while the Obama Administration talks up job training programs at community colleges, many of which are aimed at helping workers update their skills, Raritan Valley has added some of the trappings of a four-year college.
To wit, the college recently added men’s and women’s varsity soccer teams, and a club ice hockey team. It’s a big change for a community college that has often struggled to field teams.
“I don’t think we’ve had to forfeit a game this year,” Crabill said, “which was not our tradition.”
Older students are still a strong, visible population at Raritan Valley. Jill Marie Winters is one of them. She’s in her fifties, and is working toward an associate degree in social work. Winters said she sees plenty of students like her on campus. But she likes going to class with young students, and interacting with them through Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for students at two-year colleges.
“I just love the young kids,” Winters said. “I think they like being around us.”
Crabill said the college predicted its enrollment growth, but was surprised a bit by the numbers of students who are just out of high school. And while those students expect more campus life options, the increased energy has been a plus.
“Young students are demanding and that’s what makes it fun,” she said.