Kaila Nicholson of Kingston wants to join a SWAT team. Dayanna Martes of Lawrence is studying business. Aja Metcalf of Salem is majoring in exercise science.
The Northern Essex Community College students are looking forward to the day when they can start their new careers — without being burdened with thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
They are among the many college students in Southern New Hampshire and the Merrimack Valley who have decided to attend two-year schools instead of a traditional four-year university.
While they enjoy attending a small school close to home, the chance to save at least $20,000 in tuition, room and board was a major factor in their decision, the students said.
“The money I would have to pay after four years of school seemed so much to me,” said Martes, a 17-year-old freshman.
She even gave up an $18,000 scholarship to Newbury College because it was more affordable for her to live at home and attend NECC, where she received a few smaller scholarships.
Nicholson, who is studying criminal justice, agreed economics played a big role in her decision to attend community college.
“It’s a big difference,” she said of the cost.
Nicholson said she’s now paying roughly $5,000 a year, compared to $30,000 a year.
The sophomore transferred from Southern New Hampshire University after one semester, mostly because she wanted to attend a smaller school where she would receive more individual attention.
“I think it’s a good school and the teachers here are really good,” Nicholson said. “And it’s cheaper.”
NECC, with campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, has seen a 5 percent increase in enrollment this fall, spokeswoman Ernie Greenslade said.
“I think people are recognizing the value,” she said.
Recession made a big difference
Ever since the recession began several years ago, community college officials in New Hampshire and Massachusetts say they are seeing significant increases in enrollment as students and their families struggle to foot the rising costs of higher education.
They said more local high school students are opting to attend schools such as NECC. In New Hampshire, Manchester Community College and NHTI in Concord are popular choices.
Since last year, NECC has seen a 62 percent increase in students from Sanborn Regional High School, where Nicholson graduated from 2011. In addition, there has been a 58 percent increase in students from Timberlane Regional High School and a 31 percent rise in the number from Salem High School.
The college has also experienced a 53 percent increase in Lawrence High School students — Martes’ alma mater — and a 30 percent hike in Haverhill High School students.
Soaring costs during tough economic times makes a two-year school the only viable option for some, Greenslade said.
As students prepare to graduate from high school, their families are getting nervous, wondering how to afford the expense of a college education, she said.
“There has been a lot of news coverage of college costs,” Greenslade said. “They are getting scared.”
In fact, a recent study by The Institute for College Access & Success shows that New Hampshire leads the nation for the seventh year in a row for having the highest average amount of student debt.
Students who graduated from New Hampshire colleges in 2011 owed an average of $32,450 in loans. Massachusetts ranked 14th at $27,181, while the nationwide average was $26,600.
Officials from local colleges and high schools said they are seeing same trend — more students going to community colleges to save money.
“Our enrollment since the recession started is up 30 percent,” said Janet Phelps, spokeswoman for Manchester Community College.
Enrollment at the school was 4,312 students in 2007-2008. That figure rose to 5,611 students in just four years.
Earning an associate’s degree at the school costs about $10,000 to $12,000 over two years. Attending the University of New Hampshire costs about $26,000 a year.
Four-year schools still an option
Greenslade and Phelps said many students go on to four-year schools after receiving a two-year degree.
Community colleges are a much more viable option than in the past because students can easily transfer credits without having to repeat courses, they said.
While Nicholson said she will be ready to enter law enforcement after receiving her degree, Martes and Metcalf are looking to transfer to four-year schools.
Metcalf, a 19-year-old Salem High School graduate, is happy to be attending a small school and living at home. She’s a member of the NECC women’s basketball team.
But one big reason why the exercise science major decided to attend a two-year school was because she didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduating from college. It didn’t seem worth it to spend thousands of dollars more each year to attend a four-year school, she said.
“Really, financially, it was the more reasonable way to go since I’m not sure what I want to do,” she said. “I didn’t want to waste the money. ... It was definitely the right move for me.”
NHTI spokesman Alan Blake said his school has seen sharp increases enrollment in recent years, but a slight drop-off of 1 or 2 percent in the past year.
That’s because decreased state funding for New Hampshire’s community college and university system has had an impact, he said.
To make up for the money slashed by the state Legislature, there was a 7 percent tuition increase at NHTI, which has about 4,500 students, he said.
Before the cuts, there was a 14 percent increase in enrollment in fall 2009 and a 10 percent rise in the fallof 2010, Blake said. The school had fewer than 4,000 students a decade ago.
“We have grown pretty dramatically over the last 10 years,” he said.
Ross Gittell, chancellor of New Hampshire’s community college system, said the state’s seven community colleges are becoming popular choices for students, despite the funding cuts.
“I think what may be the driving factor is affordability,” he said.
The community college system serves more than 27,000 students annually. Full-time tuition costs between $4,680 and $6,240 a year.
Gittell said community colleges also offer specialized training for careers such as biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, crucial job fields in the 21st century.
“An investment in the community college system is really an investment in New Hampshire’s future,” he said.
Local principals and guidance counselors said more students are expressing interest in two-year colleges. That includes Pinkerton Academy in Derry, which sent 120 of its graduates to NHTI in 2011, compared to only 35 in 2000, Blake said.
That trend is continuing this fall as well as seniors begin applying to colleges, Pinkerton guidance counselor John Chappell said.
“I’ve had more (interested) this year than any other year before,” Chappell said.
About 17 percent of Pinkerton’s approximately 700 graduates go to two-year schools, he said.
Attracting top students
Even the best students are considering community colleges, according to Chappell and Sanborn principal Brian Stack.
“Some of our brightest students are recognizing there is value to it,” Stack said.
That’s a change from years ago, when top students usually when to four-year schools, they said.
Some high schools, including Sanborn, participate in dual enrollment programs at community colleges such as NECC. It allows high school students to earn credit for college-level courses. This also persuades some to go to a two-year school on a full-time basis after graduating from high school.
Timberlane participates in a similar program, giving the high school students a big advantage when they start college, principal Donald Woodworth said.
“It’s something that is a great opportunity for our kids,” he said.