'Has the Dream Come True?'

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The need for this series grew out of general discussions at Cape Issues for the pressing need for economic development in Cape May County, and the role a community college can and should play in that development. After discussions with Cape Issues members, including Dr. Tom Henry, who has extensive experience in higher education, this series was born. Given Vince Conti’s significant background in higher education, he was asked to compile the series. An additional impetus was the Herald’s late editor Joe Zelnik’s crusade to bring a community college to this county.

Community colleges are generally open-access institutions with a focus on providing opportunity for a large segment of the population for whom the more traditional institutions are often too expensive, too selective, or too inflexible.

The emphasis at a community college is on teaching not research, it is on access not selectivity, its goals of access depend upon it being the most affordable option among the many entry points for higher education, and it has an overarching goal for public service as a community-based institution.

All community colleges share the goals of access, service and affordability. After that the mission and focus of any individual institution is largely dependent on the needs and desires of the community it serves. The lack of an emphasis on research, the non-traditional nature of many of its students, and the community-based nature of much of its funding, give today’s public two-year institution a symbiotic relationship with its community. 

In Cape May County the importance of Atlantic Cape Community College is magnified by the paucity of higher education institutions in the extreme southern end of the state. Subtracting Talmudic institutions and theological seminaries, the state Secretary of Higher Education lists 59 colleges and universities in New Jersey with only three community colleges and one four-year institution combined in Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland and Salem counties.

Two recent events make it a particularly useful time to take stock of the Cape May County partnership that brought a community college campus to the southern shore. Just this past year, the local campus of Atlantic Cape Community College celebrated ten years at its site in Court House.

Now Dr. Peter Mora, president of Atlantic Cape Community College for the entire existence of the Cape May County campus, announced his retirement, initiating a search process that will bring new leadership and vision to the institution.

The opening of the local branch campus and the transformation of then Atlantic Community College into a regional institution was greeted with great fanfare in 2005. Years of effort finally resulted in the physical presence of an institution of higher education in the county.

Looking back at those 10 years provides an opportunity to evaluate the institution’s impact on the local community and to suggest some avenues of focus for the future.

A Herald series of articles will consider various aspects of the Atlantic Cape Community College role in Cape May County.

It will look at the effort to bring a college to Cape May County and the many difficulties that delayed its implementation. In 1995, when the state rejected Cape May County’s request for a standalone college and urged the county to seek a partnership with an existing institution, few realized that the process would take a decade before the campus in Court House opened its doors.

The series will consider Atlantic Cape Community College’s impact on providing higher education possibilities for county residents, with a look at the traditional role of academic instruction and degree attainment, at help for the underprepared, at transfer success for those seeking four-year degrees, and at the academic programs the new campus brought to the county.

It will examine Atlantic Cape Community College’s involvement with county workforce issues, at the institution’s efforts to serve those for whom the primary goal of post-secondary education is a job with a more economically secure future, and at the role of the college in the economic development of the county.

Additionally, it will look at the public service role of the institution, its relationship to the intellectual and cultural life of the county.

Last it will focus on some potential future goals as the institution embarks on a change of leadership that will probably define the next decade.

These are trying times for higher education. Nationally enrollments have dipped by 6 percent over the last four years. Students in New Jersey have responded to a Stockton University poll by making clear their desire to see greater emphasis on job preparation.

Political leaders at all levels have made post-secondary education a cornerstone of their plans for economic development. In Cape May County much may depend on how successful the community and the college are in managing their relationship in the coming years.

For many the opening of the Cape May County campus of Atlantic Cape Community College in fall 2005 was a major event. It held the promise of individual opportunity and community development.

The critical importance of education in the changing world has only increased in the last decade. Looking back at the 10-year relationship with the county’s only institution of higher education may aid in articulating what that relationship needs to be in the next decade.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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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