'Has the Dream Come True?'

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

COURT HOUSE – On the day of the ribbon cutting ceremonies for the Cape May County Campus (CMCC) of Atlantic Cape, the freeholders ran an ad in the Herald announcing “Our journey that began nearly 10 years ago is now complete.” The construction of the campus was termed “Our Proudest Achievement” and the goals that motivated the endeavor were articulated.

First, the new campus would “provide convenient and affordable post-secondary education.” No longer would prospective students seeking a college education have to trek to the Mays Landing campus of Atlantic Cape 35 miles from the new Court House location.

Next, economic development and business interests would be served by the county-based campus which would offer “job training and professional development” enhancing both “individual opportunity” and “strengthening our business community.”

Lastly, the freeholders also predicted that the campus would capture “the essence of life-long learning and the culture of enlightenment in our backyard.” The intellectual and cultural life of the community would be better for its presence.

Perhaps some of the hyperbola of the opening ceremonies was a product of a 10-year struggle to get to Aug. 24, 2005. Long struggles require a belief that the result is worth the toil. 

Oddly, the language that day made it seem as though many believed that what was desired had already been achieved. The struggle was over, the journey complete. The mere presence of the college would lead to its success.

A look at enrollments over the first decade tells a different story.

Strong Beginning and Five-Year Collapse

The opening forecast of over 1,000 enrollments did materialize that fall, a 50 percent increase over the previous headcount one year earlier. The majority of the 44 degree programs offered by Atlantic Cape still required travel to Mays Landing, but eight disciplines were fully available on the new campus. 

They included popular career programs like business administration, education and criminal justice; general programs that focused on preparation for eventual transfer to a four-year college like General Studies and Liberal Arts; and programs that usually command high interest and enrollments at many colleges including History, Social Sciences, and Humanities.

Things started off well and credit hour enrollments taken by county students grew steadily for the first five years. By 2010, enrollments at the new college had grown over 40 percent. Then the decline began.

By fiscal year 2015, credit-hour enrollments taken by county students were a mere 4 percent ahead of what they were in the fiscal year in which the new campus opened. Almost all the gains are gone.

President Peter Mora’s annual budget message for FY 2016 publically affirms the institution’s projection that declines will continue in the current year.

It is no longer possible to take eight different degree programs from classrooms at the Cape May County Campus. Currently only two can be done fully from that facility. The expansion in online courses allows for as many as 12 degree programs that are available fully online, but they would have been possible without the campus everyone was so excited to open in 2005.

In fact, if one looks only at traditional face-to-face classes, where a student is in a classroom with other students and a faculty member, enrollments by county students are actually lower than they were in the year before the new campus opening, the year when classes were held in a rented building in Rio Grande.

Erosion of the Dream

Even in the first year of the new facility, a confluence of pressures was slowly eroding the foundation of all the optimism.

Simultaneously with the opening of the Cape May County Campus, Atlantic Cape was expanding its operations relative to the burgeoning gaming business in Atlantic City. Enrollments at the main campus and its satellite site in Atlantic City were benefiting from casino employees and the development of programs aimed at that market.

Even the early 40 percent growth in Cape May County enrollments did not change the fact that this county’s representation in total Atlantic Cape enrollments never moved above 20 percent. Growth was occurring in Atlantic County as well and much of it was tied to a then-robust gaming industry.

In 2006 gaming revenues reached $5.2 billion, an all-time high. Casinos were expanding, not contracting, and land was just purchased for the new mega-resort that would eventually be Revel.

With the new Cape May County Campus, growth of its Casino Career Institute, and increased public awareness of the importance of educational attainment, these were good times for Atlantic Cape. The first decade of the 21st century had witnessed a 75 percent growth in total credit hours taken.

The future seemed bright. In its 2005 Strategic Plan, Atlantic Cape called for recognition “in the region, across the nation, and globally for its outstanding academic and training programs.” 

In September 2006 Pennsylvania legalized slot casinos. Rapidly other states followed suit. Competition transformed the face of Atlantic City and threw the gaming industry into chaos. 

Just as crews laid the foundation for Revel, and Atlantic Cape moved ahead with its expansion of the Casino Career Institute, the gaming industry in Atlantic City began a major contraction.

In Cape May County, a predictable demographic decline impacted the new college in surprisingly unanticipated ways. Atlantic Cape had focused much of its recruiting effort on students exiting high school. That was precisely one of the demographic groups moving in an opposite direction.

Adding to the emerging difficulties, a financial crisis of historic size began in 2008. Higher education institutions often do well in an economic downturn as people go back to school for new job skills. That counter-cyclical trend does not always hold for public institutions that witness increased competition for government support.

Fiscal years 2009 and 2010 saw the most significant declines in state financial support for Atlantic Cape just as the high tide of enrollments was ebbing.

In a discussion last week Richard Perniciaro, vice president of Research, Planning, Facilities and Executive Support said that it was getting more difficult to see “how the college can continue to afford three campuses.” He was not making a definitive statement about the future, but he was candidly admitting the extent of the challenge that will face the institution as it searches for a new president.

New Plan

Partly in response to the decreasing availability of degree programs at the Cape May County Campus, a number of students turned to online modalities. Dr. Otto Hernandez, vice president of Academic Affairs, said that Atlantic Cape encouraged the move to online as a way to continue to provide access to degree programs while face-to-face options decreased. The new campus that everyone toiled so long to bring into existence, however, became less central to that education.

Hernandez says he continues to look for ways to make the local campus “viable.” That was his term and it shows the concern about a campus everyone thought 10 years ago would be a centerpiece of burgeoning higher education in the county.

This fall Hernandez plans to gradually start to reintroduce new degree programs and more 200-level courses to the local campus. He is using technology to help ensure that the courses pay for themselves.

The program will make use of video conferencing technology to link students in a Court House classroom to those in a classroom in Mays Landing.

The faculty member will rotate between the two sites with the eventual goal being a faculty presence at each location half the time. It probably will begin with the faculty member at the local campus only one out of three class meetings.

Technology will allow students in both locations to participate synchronously in the class experience. The alternating of the faculty member’s presence in each location will expose all students to personal interaction with their instructor.

Hernandez also plans to use full-time senior faculty for these courses.  

The proposal works for Hernandez because he can be assured that enrollment levels in Mays Landing are adequate to “pay for” the course and that allows him to guarantee to run the course in Cape May County even if enrollments are below the desired level.

Hernandez admits that he is out of other ideas for bringing a richer variety of courses to the Court House facility. “We are betting on this,” he said with the conviction of a man who does not see many other options.

The experiment will reintroduce programs that had been part of the campus opening in 2005 like Criminal Justice, Business Administration and Education. It will add courses in new areas for the local campus like Psychology, Communication, Human Services and Health Services.

This new effort will not immediately mean that these degree programs can be fully completed locally, but it is a start and will give some students who have moved entirely online an opportunity to get the interaction and instantaneous access to faculty that the fully online modality misses.

In addition, Hernandez talked of two strengths of the Atlantic Cape curriculum, things that set it apart among state community colleges: the culinary and the aviation programs.

He says that Atlantic Cape is very involved in all aspects of developing new aviation studies at the Cape May County Airport. “We’d love to center the aviation program at the airport if we can clear some hurdles,” he said.  The main one he mentioned is being permitted to build a control tower for student use.

Educational Desert

A new study by the Brookings Institute terms areas like Cape May County “educational deserts.” It uses the term for places where potential students confront limited local college opportunity. That study argues that despite mental images of the college experience, the majority of students are “place bound,” that is, they enroll in college within 20 miles of home.

Their data shows this to be true of 79 percent of community college students and 53 percent of those at public four-year institutions. The majority of students it argues “are not as mobile as some people think.”

What Brookings is involved in is trying to impact national educational policy options. What the study shows, however, is that underserved areas must find creative ways to improve educational opportunity or students will elect the option of not attending at all.

Will the new program Hernandez plans to initiate this fall have its desired impact? Will the efforts at the county airport result it becoming a hub for new educational opportunity? No one knows the answers yet, but it is clear that new ideas continue to be needed.

It is also clear that the responsibility for creative approaches extends to more than just the college administration.

The importance of college access and attainment has not changed, but goals are not achieved by the construction of a building. The opening of the new campus in 2005 was a step toward the future not an end in itself. That future and that dream are as endangered now as they ever were.

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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