The open-access mission of community colleges means they must be particularly flexible, with numbers fluctuating each year, often in response to economic trends.
Enrollment continued to fall this semester at Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester County Colleges, with a decrease of 7.64 percent across the three schools since fall 2011.
"We're very sensitive to indicators," said David Hespe, president of Burlington County College, pointing to the number of high school graduates and the unemployment rate.
"As the unemployment rate goes up, more displaced workers are looking for training. . . . There was a big recessionary bubble connected to the unemployment rate," Hespe said.
Enrollment at Camden County College peaked at 15,670 students in 2009. It has 13,006 students this year.
The majority of students take classes full time at CCC, as is the case with the other two schools. At Camden, full-time students outnumbered their part-time counterparts for the first time in 2008, the most recent school to do so. Burlington County College's full-time population became the majority two years earlier, and Gloucester County College underwent the shift in 2000.
Burlington County College has had a much smaller gap between its populations. This year, 4,910 students are taking classes full time, and 4,660 are part-timers.
"The numbers that I'm really looking at . . . is the split between full-time and part-time students, and that split is coming together where the full-timers are equalling now the part-timers," said Hespe, who said he expected to see the part-time population again surpass full-time enrollment.
Enrollment numbers are more important than ever, said Baime, because community colleges have come to rely more heavily on tuition revenue since state funding was slashed during the recession.
"There's only so much preparation they can do," Baime said. "The presidents can never be quite sure what the enrollment's going to be."
From the main campus in Glassboro, president Ali A. Houshmand is overseeing a large expansion in the school's mission.
With a new research mandate, the university is increasing the number of graduate programs it offers, with many departments introducing doctoral programs over the next several years.
Enrollment has already increased in recent years, thanks largely to transfer students. Since 2006, undergraduate enrollment has increased by 2,521 to 10,951. That was when administrators began examining how classes were scheduled and buildings were used, said Joe Cardona, a Rowan spokesman.
"We started tweaking all that," he said, citing a scheduling example: "Before then, there were very few 8 o'clock classes. So then we required every department to have an 8 o'clock class."
The enrollment increases since 2006 will have to be accelerated to match Houshmand's goal of doubling enrollment to 25,000 by 2025. From the current total enrollment of 13,349 - which includes 748 "professional students," such as the 634 brought in with the School of Osteopathic Medicine - the school will need to increase by an average of 971 students a year.
Some of the boom, Cardona said, will come from online programs. Launched three years ago, they now reach more than 2,000 students.
The university has also focused efforts on increasing racial and ethnic diversity, Cardona said, which includes attracting more students from out of state and abroad.
Students identifying themselves as white are still a majority at Rowan, but their percentage has decreased each year, from 77.4 percent in 2010 to 69.96 percent this semester.
The most popular declared major among undergraduates? Biological science, with 783 students pursuing that bachelor's degree. The second-most popular is a bachelor's degree in psychology, with 777 students.
Rutgers University's South Jersey presence has grown in some areas while decreasing in others.
"These numbers are complicated, and it's pretty hard to come up with a couple of sentences that come up with a pattern," said Wendell Pritchett, who became campus chancellor in June 2009.
Under his tenure, undergraduate numbers have increased steadily from 3,870 in 2008 to 4,828 this fall. That number may change slightly, Pritchett said. The school's data, compiled Oct. 1 for The Inquirer, have not been finalized for the semester.
The undergraduate population has grown, in large part, Pritchett said, because of increased transfer student enrollment and the success of programs aimed at keeping students from dropping out or transferring.
But total enrollment has decreased slightly in the last two years, pulled down by graduate student enrollment. After peaking in 2011 at 1,899 students, the count this year was 1,598 as of Oct. 1. In 2012, the school had 1,760 graduate students.
"The law school over the last two years has lost over 200 students, and there's a small decrease in the number of M.B.A. students. So that's the answer for that decrease," he said.
Enrollment numbers were also hurt by last year's proposed merger with Rowan University, Pritchett said. Because prospective students were uncertain about the future of the campuses, Pritchett said, they may have stayed away.
Pritchett had set a goal of increasing enrollment to 7,500 by next year; that goal has been set back two years by the fallout from the merger proposal, he said.