New places for a bachelor's degree in South Jersey: Community colleges

Xavier Johnson graduated from Burlington County College, then decided to stay there to work toward a bachelor's degree from Drexel University.
Xavier Johnson graduated from Burlington County College, then decided to stay there to work toward a bachelor's degree from Drexel University. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 17, 2014

South Jersey, with its relative dearth of four-year colleges, appears to have adopted a new venue for delivering bachelor's degrees to residents: community colleges.

Following a national trend, professors from universities including Rowan and Rutgers-Camden are increasingly traveling to teach on the county campuses, offering bachelor's programs as part of new partnerships with the two-year schools.

After completing an associate's degree, community college students can transfer to a four-year program and complete a university bachelor's degree right where they are.

"Some of it has to do with capacity. Particularly in New Jersey, there aren't as many seats in the baccalaureate institutions as there may be needed," said Raymond Yannuzzi, in his eighth year as president of Camden County College. "Those trends, plus the changing nature of going to school, more and more people don't live on campus these days. . . . They want to be able to do what they do more conveniently, and community colleges are located close to where people live."

On July 1, Gloucester County College changed its name to Rowan College at Gloucester County, reflecting a partnership with Rowan University that will bring university faculty to the county college campuses to teach baccalaureate programs.

Bachelor's degree programs at South Jersey community colleges were established more than a decade ago, but have proliferated in recent years. This fall, Rutgers-Camden will begin offering a bachelor's in business administration at Burlington and Camden County Colleges.

"The less students have to move - whether it's from one office to the next and certainly from one campus to the next - the more coherence there can be . . . the more chance there is that students are going to graduate," said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University's Community College Research Center.

For Torian Holt, 31, "rounding out" his 2012 associate's degree in psychology from Camden County College with a bachelor's degree could have happened at Rutgers' Camden campus, but that would have made it more difficult for him to continue his full-time job in the human resources department at Virtua in Voorhees.

Holt spent several years as a part-time student, taking classes before work at Camden County College's Blackwood campus, which is less than five minutes from his home in Clementon.

"As far as with work and everything, I knew I would still be working while I went to school," said Holt, who registered last week for three fall-semester Rutgers courses in Blackwood. "I just figured it would work in my favor as far as time, to be able to go somewhere where it's right in my own backyard and still be able to maintain my work schedule, too."

Convenience may have large implications for South Jersey, home to few four-year colleges - Rutgers-Camden, Rowan, and Stockton College - compared with the cluster of schools in the northern end of the state, or to the dozens across the river in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs.

But South Jersey community colleges have grown extensive campus networks over the years: Burlington County College has four locations, for example.

"We're in a unique situation from other counties in that we are the only institution of higher education in our county. So we're the institution of higher education," said David Spang, the interim president of Burlington County College. "And a student that wants to stay in the county, live at home, work in a job perhaps . . . we are the only opportunity for on-site education."

Xavier Johnson, a 19-year-old whose 4.0 grade-point average earned him valedictorian honors from BCC in May, said he decided to stay on the campus for his Drexel University degree because it would be more convenient and cost less.

Driving less than 20 minutes from Burlington Township to the Mount Laurel campus is easier than the complicated route, including a bus, that he would have taken to attend classes in Philadelphia, he said.

Adding to the savings: Tuition for the Drexel programs at BCC is about two-thirds the cost of the programs on the main campus in the city. Johnson also received a generous financial aid package, he said.

"I'm happy with my decision because of the long run. . . . The only thing I would be actually adding on is room and board, and that would be another risk I'd be taking on," said Johnson, who opted for community college in the first place to avoid student debt.

"For me, it's a financial and long-term decision," he said.

As two-year schools introduce more partnerships with four-year colleges, careful planning will be important, administrators said.

"Communication naturally is one key," BCC's Spang said. "Sharing of information, willingness to work as a team, and I think on both sides there's been some give and take in terms of aligning curriculum."

Burlington County College introduced on-campus bachelor's degrees through a partnership with Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2001. Twenty-four majors are now offered at the community college through Fairleigh Dickinson, Drexel, Wilmington University, and, beginning this year, Rutgers-Camden.

To limit rivalry, the majors do not overlap, Spang said.

Jenkins, the Columbia researcher, also suggested that four-year colleges make sure their baccalaureate programs not only reflect desires of students, but adapt to the needs of the regional economy.

"We try to be very strategic in offering just programs that we know are going to have an appeal," said Horacio Sosa, a Rowan University dean. "It is driven certainly by numbers, in the sense that you want to offer programs that you know there is going to be a demand in that place."

Community colleges account for the vast majority of students that transfer into Rowan University each year. Administrators expect those numbers to increase, as the newly renamed Rowan College at Gloucester County begins to offer conditional acceptance to the university and brings bachelor's degree programs to its campus.

"The door is open to thousands of students who will seek higher education in a more affordable, accessible location, paving the way for four-year degrees with easy transfer of credits," Virginia N. Scott, a community college trustee, said at a July 1 ceremony marking the new partnership.

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