As financial pressures mount on community colleges, some schools have begun to openly compete: crossing county lines and marketing to a wider pool of students.
In South Jersey, Camden County College has frozen its tuition and mandatory fees for a second year in part because nearby schools remain less expensive. Community colleges in Burlington and Gloucester Counties are aggressively marketing their partnerships with Rowan University to students throughout the region.
Driving increased competition are several long-term factors: fewer high school graduates, flat or falling enrollment, and reduction in state funding.
"It's forcing everyone to find ways to do what they've traditionally done, differently," said Paul Drayton, the president of Rowan College at Burlington County.
It's unclear how increased competition could eventually shift the traditional geographic orientation of New Jersey's community college system, which now has 19 community colleges serving the 21 counties.
"Does 19 become 17, if some of these counties were to go together?" asked Frederick Keating, the president of Rowan College at Gloucester County. "I think, in time, it becomes inevitable, because of the collapsing of the sector quantitatively - and revenue streams are choking off."
Another possibility is that the schools begin to specialize, offering programs other schools do not have.
Drayton's school is marketing its online programs and touting its guaranteed transfer admission to Rowan University.
To avoid competition with each other, the two Rowan College schools have agreed to target different counties, with the Gloucester County school focused on eight counties in South Jersey while the Burlington County school takes Burlington, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties and Bucks County in Pennsylvania.
Both schools market to Philadelphia students; one RCBC ad compares the school's tuition to that of the Community College of Philadelphia.
"For us, this is a fundamental change in how this college operates and how we handle our marketing and branding. There's no going back for us," Drayton said.
Crossing geographic lines is creating competition more like four-year schools than community colleges, both Drayton and Keating said.
"The relationship with Rowan University has given us . . . not only a choice . . . but an obligation or even a demand to regionalize," Keating said. "Because what we have, other counties don't have."
Keating noted that the share of colleges' revenue coming from students has increased over time, which has contributed to higher tuition and fees.
But might rising costs, meant to offset decreasing government aid, end up backfiring by excluding some students, and thus hurting enrollment?
That's the concern at Camden County College, where the board has fixed tuition and mandatory fees for the second consecutive year. Don Borden, the college's president, said that while trying to be cognizant of students' financial needs, his school also is simply trying to compete with neighboring schools.
"The students come from all around us, so we need to keep competitive with the other colleges that are around us," said Helen Antonakakis, who heads Camden County College's finance and planning.
Camden County College's tuition and fees next year will cost $144 per credit for county residents.
That still remains higher than Rowan College at Gloucester County, which is raising its per-credit cost $2, to $139.50, and Rowan College at Burlington County, which is freezing its per-credit cost at $135.50.
The colleges still charge different rates to in-county, out-of-county, out-of-state, and international students, but those lines have become blurred as colleges offer a variety of waivers.
Jose Robles, 25, who graduated this month from Rowan College at Burlington County with an accounting degree, took classes at the Mount Laurel campus in part because it was closer to his Camden County home in Pennsauken.
Robles used to attend Camden County College but left to serve in the Army. When he returned, he decided the drive to Mount Laurel would be easier than the commute to Blackwood.
RCBC would also be cheaper: The school charged him in-county tuition because he is a veteran.
"It adds up in the end, and overall RCBC makes it much more affordable," Robles said.
History has shown students to be very savvy in comparing schools to find the best option, said Melinda Karp, assistant director at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
"In a densely populated area like New Jersey, it doesn't surprise me that keeping a small catchment area is not as easy," Karp said.
The result of these pressures in the long-term is unclear; Larry Nespoli, the president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, demurred when pressed about the future.
"We only have 19 community colleges, for crying out loud. We're not blind to the new challenges ahead of us - . . . we read about hospitals merging every day, it seems - but we already have a regional community college system. It happens to be by counties," he said.
"Five years from now, might we have other bi-county colleges? Who the hell knows?" he said.
Whatever happens, he said, the schools are all facing tough times and working on solutions: "We're looking at the new normal and trying to figure it out."