'Has the Dream Come True?'

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This is the fourth in a series that focuses on Atlantic Cape Community College’s decade-old Cape May County Campus.

COURT HOUSE – Officials at Atlantic Cape Community College’s main campus in Mays Landing are well aware of the year-by-year decline in enrollments at the Cape May County Campus. The Herald reported April 20 that enrollments in terms of both head counts and credit hours are at levels not seen since courses were taught at the rented extension building in Rio Grande. In a discussion this week, Atlantic Cape President Dr. Peter Mora outlined a five-part plan for reversing the decline at the local campus.

Shared Teleconferencing Courses

Mora began with the efforts to reinstate a larger number of degree programs at the local campus through the use of teleconferencing technology and faculty who would split time between two campuses. We described this effort and the programs that would be involved in the April 20 edition.

Officials hope that offering a more varied program mix will increase interest at the local campus. Whether or not this technology-based approach is appealing to students remains to be seen.

Aviation Studies

Mora then turned to the second item in his plan, the location of the college’s aviation studies program in new space at Cape May County Airport.

An aviation program exists at Atlantic Cape largely because the two presidents prior to Mora, Dr. John May and Dr. William Orth, both arrived at the Mays Landing institution by way of the Air Force Academy. Orth, a brigadier general, had served as a dean at the academy and May was a professor of physics there.

During Orth’s tenure, efforts to revive Atlantic City Airport, especially with the arrival of gaming in Atlantic City, and the location of the FAA Technical Center nearby led then-Atlantic County College to try expansion into aviation studies.

The program was not an immediate success. Orth responded by characterizing the attempt as “a little ahead of our time.” Now the aviation studies program is a unique offering for a community college.

As Mora explained it, Atlantic Cape would like to enhance its aviation program and locate a big piece of it in Cape May County. What is needed is a control tower.

“Atlantic Cape would like to enhance its aviation program and locate a big piece of it in Cape May County. What is needed is a control tower.”

Mora said the college already has the simulator and the academic courses but needs a “real tower” to grow the program and make it appeal to potential students. He feels that discussions with the FAA can be satisfactorily concluded if Cape May County freeholders show a commitment to the capital expense involved.

In Mora’s plan, Atlantic Cape would be a tenant in the tower. “We would pay rent,” he said. The capital expense would be up to the county.

Mora did not have specifics on the level of capital investment required or on any enrollment projects for the program if it were initiated.

Under an even earlier President Dr. Lawrence R. Winchell, Jr., Atlantic County College started its Casino Institute and its Culinary Arts program. Each of these programs, along with aviation studies and the additional move by Orth into online courses as early as 1993, all demonstrated a vision and a willingness to adapt the institution to the needs of its community.

That commitment to innovation has just not existed at the local campus.

A county heavily dependent on small businesses has no entrepreneurial studies program. A county where tourism is the life blood of the economy has had no hospitality program at the local campus. Dr. Richard Perniciaro, vice president at Atlantic Cape, admitted that there has been no program strategy specific to Cape May County.

Encourage Older Students

The third aspect of Mora’s five-part plan is to encourage enrollments by non-traditional students, those who are over 25, working and probably attending part-time. The college will institute a process that offers credit for life experience.

The idea is not new to higher education. It is most often used by institutions that market themselves to military personnel. The concept is that life experience and specific training acquired outside a formal academic setting can result in college credit toward a degree, thereby lessening the time a student must be enrolled.

“…Life experience and specific training acquired outside a formal academic setting can result in college credit.”

The military example provides the easiest way to explain the process. In this example an articulation by the American Council on Education provides a schedule of potential college credits for specific forms of military training. It is up to the individual college whether or not to accept anything for credit.

Another way it might work is to allow students to “test out” of courses based on experience which has instilled in the student the necessary knowledge. An individual who went through training at the police academy, for example, may be able to gain some credit for that training.

The use of this form of credit has the potential to be a draw for students who are older and have had significant exposure to specialized training or experience. It is a recruitment tool.

Recruitment Efforts

The so-called “fly in the ointment” with this approach is that the program will not sell itself. Atlantic Cape provided a document briefly outlining its recruitment efforts in Cape May County. The recruitment strategy outlined by Atlantic Cape continues the focus on the traditional student, ages 18-24.

This has been an issue for Atlantic Cape throughout the five-plus years of declining enrollments. The average age of the student body, according to Perniciaro, is getting younger. The institution keeps the bulk of its recruitment in the very population that is in demographic decline.

Conversely, the largest percentage losses at the institution during the period of enrollment decline are with older students. During the last five years, Atlantic Cape has lost students over 24 at nearly twice the rate of those under that age.

The non-traditional student market is one of individuals seeking advancement or career retraining. The introduction of credit for experience is something that has worked nationwide, but it will require a specific effort to market the institution to students who could benefit from such a program.

Enrollment Through Retention

The fifth element in the five-part plan is enrollment through retention.

The very nature of community colleges leads to attrition rates higher than at four-year institutions. Students more often carry life burdens – jobs, families, and children – at levels higher than undergraduates at four-year schools.

The population generally has a higher percentage of first-in-family-to-college, meaning students lack the support structure that comes with college-educated parents and siblings. The community college is also the low-cost option in the educational system.

Thus it attracts more students for whom financial burdens of persistence may become too great. 

Lastly, community colleges, by virtue of being open-admissions institutions, take in more students who are academically underprepared.

All the signs point to these issues being problems at Atlantic Cape. Increasing retention as an enrollment management strategy is an obvious move, but one fraught with difficulties.

Accelerated Learning

Mora talked of an accelerated learning program where high school seniors can take the remedial courses necessary to be “college ready” while in high school.

There is an irony in this. A student, while still in a free high school environment, may have to pay to take a remedial course at the college even though the material covered is part of a pre-college curriculum that he or she for some reason could not master in high school. 

Another aspect of the enrollment-through-retention effort uses the new student career centers installed at each campus of Atlantic Cape. The goal is to help students focus on a career path as they start their college years. The theory behind this is that students with a career focus have a goal that acts to keep them enrolled.

“Another aspect of the enrollment-through-retention effort uses the new student career centers…”

Early Intervention

Mora also described early intervention efforts intended to have college personnel look for signs of flagging interest by the student. They could intervene before the individual becomes an attrition statistic.

He talked of honors programs to help keep the academically-gifted enrolled.

Lastly he noted Atlantic Cape’s participation in Achieving the Dream National Reform Network, an organization intent on improving community college student success. Over 200 colleges in 35 states are part of the network.

Participation in the network brings with it a focus on 14 areas that engage best practices and a commitment to student outcomes. According to Mora, a small group of students will be part of this effort at each of the three campuses of the institution.

Strategic Finance

While presenting this five-point effort to reverse the declines at the local campus, Mora also talked about Atlantic Cape’s effort at Strategic Finance. This is a concept and a methodology that has been in use in higher education for a long time. For any institution that first undertakes it, it can seem quite new and initially disruptive.

The concept seeks to force a focus on the use of resources, on the management of capital investments and debt, on asset performance and on operating results. For many higher education institutions, it can be a transformative process precisely because it leads to a way of thinking that is not common in academic management.

The result of such a process can vary greatly. For some institutions the outcome is getting smaller, downsizing. For others the result can be a shift in emphasis or focus.

Mora spoke of it as an effort to help “right-size” the institution.

Mission Related

The critical aspect of a strategic finance process is that everything is related to mission. The data-driven approach is intended to help increase the strategic use of resources as that use relates to achieving mission.

In that sense the process will place a heavy burden on the future vision for the institution. As the Board of Trustees moves forward with its effort to select a new president, the vision for the future will be extremely important if the strategic finance process is to work properly.

In our next article, the next to last in this series, we will look at Atlantic Cape’s relationship to work force development issues in Cape May County.

ED. NOTE: Conti has had a 35-year career in higher education as a teacher and senior administrator. Among other roles, he served as Vice Dean of Arts and Sciences at The University of Pennsylvania and the chief operating officer of the University of Maryland University College. He has also worked extensively with Historically Black Universities and Colleges in the U.S. and with institutions of higher education in Europe and Latin America.

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