COURT HOUSE - “You can come with news like that every meeting,” Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton told Atlantic Cape Community College President Dr. Barbara Gaba.
Thornton was referring to an 8% enrollment growth at the college’s Court House campus, the first positive signs of growth in county enrollment in a decade.
The campus, located on Dennisville Road, opened in 2005, providing the county with a higher education outlet after years of being one of the state’s only counties without a community college.
Enrollments grew steadily for five years, but, in 2010, it started a steady decline, dropping 45% by the end of fiscal year 2019.
In 2016, then-Vice President Richard Perniciaro said the enrollment declines, impacting the college, as a whole, although steeper in Cape May County, were making it more difficult to see “how the college can continue to afford three campuses.”
This was not a statement of intent to close a satellite campus, as much as it was an admission of the challenge the college faced in an era of declining community college enrollments.
Inaugurated as the college’s ninth president, in October 2017, Gaba had the task of repositioning the college while continuing to experience enrollment losses.
Help arrived, in the form of a tuition-free program pushed by Gov. Phil Murphy. The “last dollar in” program requires students to fully avail themselves of federal grant possibilities, after which it offers the remaining dollars to cover tuition and fees expenses.
According to Gaba, at her meeting with freeholders, the program “opened the doors to higher education for students” who otherwise could not pursue it for financial reasons.
Then came the pandemic.
In March, COVID-19's arrival led to a state-required closing of the campuses, and an abrupt move to online instruction. It also, according to Gaba, led to a 50% cut in state operating support funds from April through September.
She emphasized that the federal and state money given for fighting the epidemic came with restrictions. They helped with new COVID-19 related expenses but did not make up for the loss of unrestricted state aid.
A financial squeeze on an institution already experiencing years of declining tuition revenue made for significant challenges.
The college had to initiate layoffs, cut expenses to stay in line with dropping revenues, and is challenged by an overall 10% decline in enrollments this year, mostly at its Mays Landing campus. That made an 8% increase, in Cape May County, welcoming news.
For freeholders, it signaled a turnaround at a county campus that saw almost half of its enrollment evaporate in the last decade. For the college, it marked positive numbers in a sea of uncertainty about ongoing enrollments.
Gaba announced state aid would see level funding for the nine-month 2021 budget, which began Oct. 1.
The state tuition-free program will also continue to have 2021 funding. The program helped about 250 students, with an average of $1,300 apiece.
These remain “challenging times,” yet the challenge to the Cape May County campus lessened slightly. Gaba attributed the change in the enrollment picture in the county to the economic hit that the pandemic delivered. More people out of work means more individuals looking to enhance their skills and credentials for the future.
Cape May County enrollments represent only about 18% of Atlantic Cape’s total enrollments. That means that an 8% growth here, where the percentage of total enrollment is small, and a 10% decline overall is still a challenging situation for a college that has come to depend more heavily on tuition and fee revenue.
Only about 40% of total revenue comes from county and state appropriations.
Even with an 8% increase, the total enrollments are below 2017 levels, at the Court House campus. No one is out of the woods, yet good news amid a once-in-a-century pandemic and following 10 years of declining enrollments is welcome.
Most classes at the Court House campus, as is true for the college, as a whole, are online. No one can predict when that will change.
Support for the county campus was evident in Gaba’s presentation to freeholders. Despite Perniciaro’s concerns, in 2016, the satellite campus, in Cape May County, has begun to show new signs of strength.
The pandemic does not get all the credit. The most recent fiscal 2019 financial statements showed that, in 2019, prior to the coronavirus’ arrival, the enrollment decline, in Cape May County, was slowing. Almost 10% annual declines stopped, and the county held its own, in 2019, losing 1% of its credit hour enrollments.
The pandemic may be the cause of some of the enrollment increases this year, but there is no evidence it is having the same impact in the higher unemployment environment of Atlantic County.
The data from 2019 suggests that a corner is being turned, and dual college programs and other academic innovations, along with more state financial aid grant support, deserve more credit than COVID-19. A campus that needed a new lease on life may be getting it.
To contact Vince Conti, email email@example.com.