It was once a laughable option for many people, sometimes referred to as "13th grade," but the stigma surrounding community college has faded over time. These county institutions have transitioned among students from last resort to first choice.

New Jersey has gone from zero community college students 50 years ago to 450,000 students every year, according to the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

Salem Community College (Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ)

Lawrence Nespoli, NJCCC president, said people are starting to see community college as a "value proposition" in today's tough economy.

"In many of our counties throughout New Jersey, of all the high school graduates going to college, over 40 percent are choosing their local community college to get their start," Nespoli said.

For years, a scholarship program known as NJ STARS has been covering community college tuition costs for high school students who graduate in the top 15 percent of their class.

While the county college route can help relieve upfront costs and long-term debt, students are also attracted to the smaller classroom sizes and the promise of a legit, high-quality education.

There are still plenty of jobs, meanwhile, that require some college participation, but not a four-year diploma.

Without dispute, Nespoli said, when community college students transfer to senior institutions, they do as well as the native students in achieving a degree.