'Has the Dream Come True?'

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

COURT HOUSE – We live in a world that continuously touts the importance of post-secondary education. Study after study proclaims its lifetime economic benefits. Our politicians decry the lack of skills in a national workforce that needs increasing sophistication, scientific and mathematical understanding, critical thinking, and improved communication abilities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 40 percent of all individuals 18 to 24 years old are enrolled in some form of post-secondary institution. The growth rate in enrollments for those over the age of 25 is also impressive.

Everyone is getting the message. Economic security requires more than a high school education.

In Cape May County that message is not having the impact some might hope. New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development statistics show that in January the unemployment rate in the county stood at 13.6 percent. The number corresponds to the seasonal nature of the economy. Three-quarters of those individuals claimed unemployment relief and over half of those worked in “Accommodations and Food Service.” Over 65 percent of the unemployed had no education attainment beyond high school.

Cape May County’s overall educational attainment is lower than the state average and sinks even more when one factors out the degrees held by the older population that retired to the county from elsewhere.

That picture was what so many celebrants at the 2005 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new community college campus hoped to improve. The statistics suggest otherwise.

The campus that took a decade to build in Court House started out with a surge in enrollment, eight degree programs fully offered on site and the promise of a bright future. Today the enrollment gains have all been lost, only two degree programs can be completed at the site, and Atlantic Cape’s own senior administrators worry about the institution’s ability to maintain three separate campuses.

Enrollment stood at over 1,100 in that first fall of 2005. It reached a peak of just over 1,400 heads in 2010. Today it stands at 825 and showing no signs that the decline is over. 

By the numbers, the population is much higher female than male, overwhelmingly traditional college age, with two out of three under the age of 25, and it is more likely to be pursuing a general education than engaged in credit-based or non-credit career training.

The students seeking the dream are concentrated in the county’s economically disadvantaged population. The federal education grant program designed to aid low-income students is known as the Pell grant.

To qualify for Pell grants at a low tuition school, the student must meet income requirements that allow Pell grant participation rates to serve as an indicator of the socio-economic classes being served by an institution.

All community colleges have a higher Pell level than most four-year schools due to the open access, community-based nature of the institutions. Nationally two-year public institutions have a 40 percent Pell rate, that is, 40 percent of their students qualify for Pell grants. The most recent federal data available through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) shows Atlantic Cape at 62 percent.

The numbers reported to IPEDS all show that Atlantic Cape is facing a challenging environment. Nationally, the graduation rate at two-year community colleges after three years of attendance is 31 percent.

At Atlantic Cape, the number is 15 percent.

Many students are lost after one year, 40 percent of full-time students and 60 percent of part-time students do not return for year two. The trend of these numbers is not dissimilar to the issues facing community colleges elsewhere, the depth of the numbers suggests a greater problem here than in most other places. We have the same problems but we have more of them.

What Cape May County is facing is a declining ability of its one post-secondary educational institution to address the dreams of those who saw the building of the campus as a difference maker in the county.

Atlantic Cape, even at its main campus, is under a significant set of pressures in terms of funding, enrollments and the general economic climate in its service area. A shrinking pie offers less opportunity for innovation and new investment in a satellite campus.

Perhaps those who rejoiced in 2005 because the county finally had what all the other counties had, its own community college, failed to realize that what other counties have is what exists in Mays Landing not in Court House.

This county did not get a community college; it got a satellite campus of a community college. No senior administrator at Atlantic Cape presides at the Cape May campus. The vast majority of full-time faculty teaches and works in Mays Landing. The overwhelming percentage of career-oriented degree programs are offered only in Atlantic County.

Hard-working and dedicated individuals work at the local campus trying to meet the needs of county students.

Administrators are attempting to use teleconferencing and online technologies to increase the program offerings in the county. Involvement of Atlantic Cape in the economic development efforts at the Cape May County Airport represents a certain commitment to the county. Yet, none of it is surprising for an institution that cannot afford to lose the revenue stream the county represents for Atlantic Cape.

This series of articles concludes at a point in time when the community must look at the $15 million investment in a local campus, at the nature of its partnership with Atlantic Cape Community College, at the imminent selection process seeking a new president for that partnership, and at its current dreams and vision for the future.

Whether or not the campus in Court House, now in its 11th year, fulfilled the dreams that led to its founding is of less consequence than its ability to meet the community needs and dreams for 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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