COURT HOUSE - In 2005, Atlantic Cape Community College opened its Cape May County campus to great fanfare. This was the concrete symbol of an educational union between Cape May and Atlantic counties, a union that brought in-county college education to Cape May.
It was a heady time with college enrollments of county students rising by 43% in the next five years. The $15 million campus was buzzing and the future looked bright.
Atlantic Cape, one of only two community colleges in the state to service more than one county, prospered. That prosperity was in part fueled by growth in the casino and entertainment industries, with the college setting up a gaming institute and expanding a successful culinary training program.
The FY 2010 financial statements showed over 7,000 credit students at the college’s three campuses. Management reported in those statements that the “college’s financial outlook for the future is positive.”
The prediction went awry. That year, enrollments and revenue hit peaks they would not see again over the next eight years. The coming decline was as rapid as the growth had been.
From FY 2005 (when the campus opened in Court House) to FY 2010 (the point of peak enrollment for the college) as a whole, enrollments grew 24% overall, with a 43% spike for Cape May County students.
After years of struggle and annual drops in enrollments, Atlantic Cape hopes to win back some of the ground because of the New Jersey Community College Opportunity Grants (CCOG) which provide the last dollars needed to cover tuition and fees for students who meet the program qualifications.
The newly available FY 2018 financial report shows that from 2010 to 2018, overall Atlantic Cape enrollments dropped by 33%, a loss of one out of every three 2010 credit hour enrollments.
In Cape May County, the decline was more dramatic. The growth that occurred after the campus opened was followed by an eight-year decline of 38%.
At the end of 2018, Atlantic Cape’s credit hour enrollments were lower than they have been since the college’s 2002 fiscal year.
For Cape May County, that fiscal year 2002 was a period when students either trekked to Mays Landing for classes or were enrolled in those taught at a commercial building in Rio Grande. Enrollments as far back as 2002 were over 2,000 credit hours higher than they were in 2018.
All the gains from the opening of the county campus, and then some, have been erased.
Something went drastically wrong.
A lot of reasons have been suggested for the precipitous decline in enrollments.
The year 2010 was one of financial turmoil in the nation and the region. The 2008 financial crisis led to a massive real estate collapse and foreclosure rates rose rapidly, especially in Atlantic County.
The downturn hit the casino market as well. With other states opening casinos, competition rose. Atlantic City’s heavy dependence on the casino industry meant the region would feel any downturn in gaming.
Along with the financial turmoil came a demographic shift that hit Atlantic Cape in the heart of its market focus. The college, for years, had staked its future on traditional high school graduates who wanted an associate's degree and/or an eventual transition to a four-year institution.
While some community colleges paid greater attention to non-tradition students, those over the age of 25, Atlantic Cape kept its focus on high school graduates. In 2010, the financial statements pointed to an expected decline in the service area population of 18-24-year-olds.
Demographic shifts are often predictable. The ability with which an institution reacts to what they see coming varies.
Economic turmoil and demographic change contributed to volatility in enrollments. At first, following the 2008 crisis, enrollments rose, as they often do during periods of economic uncertainty.
Higher education is one of the nation’s more counter-cyclical industries. Bad economic times lead people to seek more credentials or new skills.
This counter-cyclical bump is usually short-lived, as it was for Atlantic Cape.
Every year from 2010 saw a continuing decline, eroding the financial position of the institution.
In Cape May County, each year brought more limits on the programs offered wholly within the county. The goal that had been so strong in 2005 of an in-county campus where students could complete a variety of degree programs without the burden of travel to Mays Landing slowly eroded.
Fewer enrollments meant fewer programs. Fewer programs meant fewer enrollments.
In 2016, the Herald published a six-part series on Atlantic Cape and its campus off Dennisville Road in Court House.
In interviews for that series, Provost Dr. Otto Hernandez spoke openly about the challenges of offering full face-to-face programs in Cape May County when the enrollments in specific courses did not cover the cost of offering the course.
Executive Vice President Richard Perniciaro said in those same interviews that the college had resisted moving away from its focus on high school graduates, even when the demographic changes made that focus an increasing challenge.
In truth, the absolute numbers of high school graduates in the service area were (and are) in decline. Using the numbers supplied by the college in its financial statements, the high school graduate pool in the two-county service area has declined since 2010 by 4.5%. It is difficult to see how that decline can fully account for the volume of lost enrollments at Atlantic Cape.
The problem goes deeper.
Community College Paradox
The period after 2010 was one in which community colleges across the state and the country experienced significant losses of enrollments.
New Jersey’s 19 state-supported community colleges saw a 22% decline in overall enrollment during the same period that Atlantic Cape experienced a downturn of 35%.
Nationally over the same years, community college enrollments saw a drop that was identical to that across New Jersey institutions, 22%.
To add to the burden on administrators, the pressure to improve outcomes was overtaking the traditional pressure on access.
Current numbers show that community colleges take in lots of students who never achieve their goals.
One study shows that only about 15% of students who enter a community college intending to achieve a bachelor's degree succeed.
Limiting consideration to those students who successfully transfer from a community college to a four-year institution, less than half complete a four-year degree.
Yet the selling point of a community college in many of the campaigns for free tuition programs is that they represent the least expensive avenue for the first two years of a four-year college education.
The problem is compounded by the fact that many would-be students are not prepared for college-level instruction.
The handoff between the nation’s secondary schools and the community college has become more problematic in recent years with soaring numbers of students forced into community college remedial programs, even as high school graduation rates grow.
The most recent Institutional Profile published by Atlantic Cape shows that 68%, two out of three first-time, full-time students end up in remedial classes.
A vocal college-is-not-for-everyone movement argues that post-secondary education needs a vibrant alternative to traditional academic programs.
The focus, some argue, needs to be equally strong on vocational skills attainment, apprenticeships, and other programs linked explicitly and directly to potential jobs.
The free tuition movement has been growing nationwide. It began as a way to counter the ever-rising cost of higher education. It seems officials found it easier to change who paid for higher education than to work with institutions to reduce the cost structures that drive up prices well beyond normal inflation.
Further, increased availability of government funds for education has fueled increases in education costs, exacerbating the problem.
As college loan debt soars to over $1.5 trillion, governments at all levels are struggling to provide relief while maintaining the policy goal of more students in college.
In New Jersey, Atlantic Cape stands to benefit from the Murphy Administration’s CCOG program. Students that meet certain income standards and also take on a minimum six-credit-hour load can end up with no tuition bill.
The program was launched as a pilot in the spring of 2019 with 13 of the state’s community colleges, including Atlantic Cape.
Atlantic Cape President Dr. Barbara Gaba told trustees that the program benefited over 300 students at Atlantic Cape. Details for what that meant for college enrollment numbers and revenues are not yet available. The state also has yet to release detailed data on the pilot, even though the Murphy Administration deems the pilot a success.
New Jersey is expanding the program for the fall of 2019 including all 19 of the state’s public community colleges. Increasing the income levels below which students can qualify will expand the pool of prospective participants.
Enrollments may be expected to follow the expansion of the program. It will be a while before data is available on the success rates and the social benefits of the program.
For Atlantic Cape, the last several years have been ones of strategic retrenchment. Full-time faculty in 2010 numbered 87 and now number 65.
Staff levels have reduced from 279 to 196. The college’s culinary program cratered in that period with credit hour enrollment falling 70%. Operating revenues, which stood at $38 million in 2010, ended 2018 at $29 million.
One may reason that CCOG will increase enrollments and revenue. However, other factors will also affect the outcomes. Next year’s financial statements will tell that tale.
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