N.J. launches community college initiative

Students wait to receive their diplomas during the first graduation ceremony of the Gateway to College program in Camden.
Students wait to receive their diplomas during the first graduation ceremony of the Gateway to College program in Camden. (ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 15, 2013

Beginning Monday, top students at New Jersey's community colleges plan to fan across their campuses with a message for their peers.

They are participating in the first New Jersey Community College Completion Challenge this week to encourage students to obtain an associate degree or certificate before leaving school.

New Jersey has 19 community colleges, including three in South Jersey, that enrolled 172,788 students in 2012, according to the latest figures available.

But only 17 percent, fewer than one in five, left with a degree in 2010 before transferring to a four-year university or entering the workforce, statistics show.

"We looked at the graduation rate, and we said we have to do something about this," said Jacob C. Farbman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. "We can no longer just be access institutions."

In 2012, Gloucester County College had a 25 percent graduation rate for the cohort that enrolled in 2009; Burlington County College 19 percent, and Camden County College 11 percent.

But college officials caution that those numbers are somewhat misleading because some students transfer to a four-year college before obtaining a degree. For example, at Burlington County College, 20 percent did so.

About 70 percent of community college students need remedial education, which increases the likelihood they may drop out, Farbman said.

"The majority of our students are coming in younger and younger," said Terrence Hardee, vice president of Student Success, a new retention program at Burlington County College. "They need to understand the importance of having a college education."

In an effort to change the trend, members of the local chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for community college students, will lead the completion campaign at each campus.

"They are the highly motivated students. They can be good examples for the rest of the students," said Dan Flisser, who advises the chapter at Camden County College.

According to Farbman, New Jersey is believed to be the first state to involve its entire community college system in such a campaign.

Students from Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester County Colleges have lined up activities for the week to get the message out. Those activities include career counseling and resumé writing workshops.

They will encourage their classmates to sign pledge cards to complete their education. Faculty and staff are also being asked to take part.

"Helping each other, we can all accomplish our dreams," said Tiffany Celeiro, 21, of Westville, a second-year criminal justice major at Gloucester County College and an honors student.

Launched in 2010, the completion challenge was the brainchild of the leaders of six organizations in higher education. Under a "call to action," they set an ambitious goal to produce 5 million more associate degree graduates nationwide by 2020.

It comes amid a decline in enrollment at two-year colleges nationally, attributed to an improving economy with more Americans choosing to work rather than enroll in school.

President Obama has called for allocating more federal funding for the nation's community colleges for career development and training to boost the economy by preparing workers for better-paying jobs in health care, transportation, and high-tech manufacturing.

In recent years, community colleges have become a lifeline for those who cannot afford a four-year college or university but who want an education.

They start off at community colleges, often living at home to save money, and then finish their education at a four-year college or university.

To make the transition easier, some community colleges hold transfer days and offer programs such as dual enrollment to seamlessly move to a bachelor's program at nearby colleges and universities.

But for some community college students, especially older, nontraditional students, completing a degree may be a challenge. Some are single parents or are holding down a full-time job while attending classes.

In addition to handing out pledge cards, honor students at Camden County College will offer tutoring to struggling classmates, said Flisser, one of three advisers to the 200-member honor society chapter in Blackwood.

"Many of them start but don't bring it to fruition. We just want to encourage them to keep their nose to the grindstone," Flisser said.


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