AURORA | It’s tiny. It’s not a “real” college. Why anyone would go there is unfathomable.

These are a few of the things 19-year-old Jennifer Mar thought of the Community College of Aurora. At least, these were her perceptions before she enrolled.

Now as a teenager, Mar not only has her high school diploma, but an associate degree in criminal justice from CCA. Mar did concurrent enrollment in high school and was able to earn both diplomas in five years.

“I didn’t know why people would go to CCA,” said the Aurora West College Preparatory grad. “But once I got there, I just liked it. It does feel like college … and some of the classes are tough, so it’s not like I’m missing out on anything.”

While Mar changed her mind about community college, a lot of the negative stereotypes associated with community colleges still exist — something CCA has been trying to change with marketing and rebranding efforts since 2014.

“It’s not just high schools students in Aurora, it’s high school students nationwide. People think of (community college) as maybe being easier or less authentic,” said Ethan Ruzzano, the director of marketing for CCA. “When I was a high school student, I don’t remember community college ever being discussed at all in any capacity. And I think that’s very different now.”

One aspect of CCA that is now being heavily marketed is the guaranteed transfer of credits to public universities in Colorado. Basically, many classes taken or degrees earned at CCA will count toward a student’s degree at a four-year public institution in Colorado. But the courses a student takes could potentially go both ways. Should a student leave CCA and decide their new university isn’t a good fit, they can transfer back, possibly without losing credits.

It seems a lot of prospective students weren’t aware of these facts, Ruzzano said. Once this information was disseminated into the community — roughly two months ago through a marketing campaign — CCA saw a sizable increase in the number of potential students wanting to know more.

“We’ve seen an over-300-percent increase in inquiries. So each week this campaign has run so far, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of prospects coming in,” he said. “That says the message is working and it’s being communicated in the community.”

Ruzzano said he’ll sometimes see more than 200 or 300 messages a week from prospective students requesting more information about CCA.

But even with this success, Ruzzano knows there are other perceptions that are harder to shake. For example, CCA has an “open-door” admissions policy, meaning entry into the college is essentially unrestricted. Or, as Ruzzano said, not “exclusive” and therefore perceived as not being a quality institution.

In reality, CCA’s open-enrollment policy exists to offer remediation courses for students who may not be ready for college-level courses, something typically not offered at four-year universities. This doesn’t make CCA classes easier, just more accessible, Ruzzano said.

“Easy” certainly isn’t a word David Estrada, a CCA student and Hinkey High School grad, would associate with his classes at the college.

Like Mar, 19-year-old Estrada thought CCA would be an easy school or not feel like the colleges he had seen on TV or in movies. On the contrary, he found his classes, especially his science courses, to be challenging. And while it’s a commuter campus, he still participated in activities like soccer and made friends.

But more than that, as a first-generation student, he was able to get a firsthand feel of college and orient himself before moving on to a bigger school.

“You get to experience the pace of classes because it’s not the same as high school,” said Estrada, who will transfer to the University of Colorado Denver once he finishes his associate degree at CCA. “You get to experience what it’s like meeting new people, you get the smaller classes and more time with the professor than at big colleges.”

These are aspects of the college Twich Collins, who graduated from CCA in May, also enjoyed while he attended the school. And like Mar and Estrada, they were qualities of CCA he wasn’t aware of until he was on campus.

Prior to enrolling at CCA, Collins worked at Jefferson Hills in Aurora, a residential treatment center for at-risk youth. While accompanying one of the kids to CCA’s Lowry campus for GED testing, Collins liked the environment and felt himself immediately drawn to CCA’s film school.

“From the first day I walked into class, I knew I was at home,” the 32-year-old said.

Another plus for Collins, he said, was the affordability of CCA. According to Collins’ estimates, he saved about $20,000 per year by going to community college instead of going to the university he initially enrolled in right after high school.

As for Mar and Estrada, through the ASCENT (Accelerating Students through Concurrent Enrollment) program, they were able to attend CCA for free. The savings for both was significant, as the average annual cost of college can range from $9,400 for state residents at public colleges to about $32,400 for private colleges, according to College Board data.

With college costs rising, opportunities such as concurrent enrollment and attending community college are becoming more popular among students said Joi Green, coordinator of counseling services for Aurora Public Schools.

“I think historically there have been a lot of those ideas about community college not being ‘real’ college,” Green said. “I think the perception has changed drastically in the last couple of years. Students are going to community college for a variety of reasons … affordability is a big factor for families these days. I would guess that the enrollment folks are exploding at the seams with applicants.”