The time for easy answers is long past. It is time for the county Commissioners to do more than just make an annual contribution to the coffers of Atlantic Cape Community College.
In 2005 the Court House campus of Atlantic Cape opened to great fanfare and with hope for a brighter educational future for the county’s young people. What we have now is a campus that few in the community have any reason to visit with a county student enrollment that has been declining since 2010. It now stands at its lowest point in twenty years. County students took more credit hour enrollments in 2001 than in 2021.
Yes, we had a pandemic that impacted enrollment, but the declines began long before the first person was infected with the coronavirus. Yes, our population has declined since 2000 with a corresponding drop in the number of high school graduates in the service area of the college, but that decline in high school graduates has not been as steep as the drop off in enrollments.
Something is wrong here and it is the job of the county commissioners to find out what and fix it. In November we argued in this space that it was time to start over. The public heard nothing from our elected officials over on Moore Road.
Tackling the problem will not be easy. Avoiding it apparently is.
Cape May County is one of five counties in the state that have only a community college as a center of higher education. Here we do not even have a home campus. Instead we have a satellite campus that is grossly underutilized.
Let’s repeat, there are fewer Cape May County resident enrollments reported in the annual statements of Atlantic Cape Community College now than there were prior to the opening of the satellite campus. We had more county enrollments when postsecondary classes were held in a commercial building off Rio Grande Avenue.
If we use enrollments over a decade, or even two, we see that each year the college has become less relevant to the goals of our young people in Cape May County. The enrollments tell that story.
Admittedly across the nation declining enrollments have characterized the recent experience of non-elite higher education institutions. There was a hope that the end of the pandemic-induced restrictions would produce a rebound. Instead that has not been the case. Again this does not explain our dilemma.
For Cape May County the decline is especially problematic. We are the junior partner in an enterprise where the senior partner, the Mays Landing home campus, is also struggling. We are not and will not be the focal point of recovery efforts.
Yet some strategy, some bold attempt to become more relevant to the service area is needed. We cannot sit at a 20 year low and wait to see what happens.
Other community colleges in our geographic area have moved to bolster their position. Both Gloucester Community College and Cumberland Community College entered into arrangements with Rowan University to increase the opportunities available to their students. They together form Rowan College of South Jersey. One institution, Gloucester, was larger that Atlantic Cape, the other, Cumberland smaller.
What can we say about some of their statistics? Comparing the 2021 numbers, compiled by each institution’s institutional research organizations, tells us more of what we already know. The number show that Atlantic Cape leads the three in the percentage of first time students placed into remediation programs. The two and three year graduation rate for the three schools shows Atlantic Cape at the bottom. It is also true that both of the Rowan affiliated schools have higher retention rates for both full-time and part-time students.
Can we say that the affiliation with Rowan is the reason these statistics favor the two nearby colleges when compared with Atlantic Cape? No, we don’t have access to that level of analysis. But we can see two institutions actively embracing a strategy they hoped would benefit the students in their service area.
Atlantic Cape has certainly tried some enrollment strategies that have not worked. More importantly for us the real focus of efforts is not Cape May County.
The easy answers no longer cut it. The economy, the drop in high school graduates, and the pandemic just don’t explain enough. The decline has been ongoing for far too long. In our county we have an empty campus and fewer enrollments than we had before the campus was built.
Our county’s elected officials need to take notice. It is time for a change. They need to lead and not merely make their annual contribution of taxpayer dollars to a less and less relevant enterprise.
From the Bible: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” – Proverbs 15:22