CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Cape May County campus of Atlantic Cape Community College celebrates its fifth anniversary this year with record enrollment of 1,406 degree-seeking students, an increase of almost 30 percent from the 1,108 enrolled when it opened in September 2005.
Cape May County was the last county in the state to get a community college, but the campus now makes up about 14 percent of all students enrolled at the college’s three campuses and online.
The branch campus is a model of shared services and cooperation that has proven cost-efficient for the county, the college and the students who attend, officials said.
President Peter Mora said the goal at all of the campuses is to meet the needs of the students at that site. In Cape May County, that has translated into offering full-time degree programs, evening classes for working students and job training for local businesses. Since 2005, 2,660 people have taken continuing education courses at the college.
Ask students why they attend, and their answers are pretty practical: It’s closer to home. It’s affordable. They spend less time and money traveling.
But they also share one more reason, and that’s the one that delights Cape May Campus Dean Patricia Gentile.
“I just like it here better,” said Maya McKnight, 19, of Upper Township, as she sat with her computer by one of the huge windows that line the building, opening it to the largely rural setting that surrounds the campus.
A long time coming
For more than 20 years Cape May County was the only county without a college. For years, Cape May County freeholders preferred to subsidize the cost for students to attend Cumberland County College or Atlantic Community College.
“A lot of people just figured we’d done it this way for so long, and it was good enough,” county Freeholder Ralph Bakley said.
“There was concern about the cost of building our own campus,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who served as a freeholder at the time. “But there were so many people who did not want to travel to Vineland or Mays Landing, or just couldn’t make the time.”
A jointure was finally formed in 1998 creating Atlantic Cape Community College, and courses were offered at county high schools and at a site in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township, while the college planned for a branch campus.
The 29-acre site is centrally located near the county zoo and fairgrounds, but freeholders faced opposition from residents, environmentalists and the Department of Environmental Protection. A review of the site found the site was habitat for the endangered Eastern tiger salamander, and freeholders sued the DEP over the zoning issues and redesigned the campus building to preserve the wetland.
The cost grew from an estimated $10 million to $15 million by the time ground was broken in 2002. The final cost was $15.4 million, with $7.5 million paid by state Chapter 12 funds for higher education construction, and the rest by Cape May County.
In the county’s debt
Mora, the college president, said it can be a challenge to operate multiple campuses, but there are overall cost savings to having just one administrative staff, and the campuses provide convenience and cost-savings for residents.
Cape May County Administrator Stephen O’Connor said annual operating costs to the county are actually less now, even though there are more county residents enrolled. He said in the five years prior to the jointure, the county paid an average $1.95 million to subsidize the cost of Cape May County students attending other county colleges. Since the jointure was formed and the new campus built, their average annual share of the operating cost has been $1.86 million.
“That means we are providing far greater and more convenient educational opportunities for more students at an average $92,389 less per year,” he wrote in an e-mail that included the data.
That amount does not include the 15-year debt service on the building itself, which will cost the county about $700,000 per year until 2016, when the building will be paid off.
The campus also benefited from good timing. It opened just as the state began its NJSTARS community college scholarship program, offering free tuition and fees for top high school graduates. The recession has also driven many people back to the less expensive community colleges to get re-trained for new jobs.
Gentile said the average age of the students has dropped from the high 20s to the mid-20s as more students enroll right out of high school.
This fall, 263 freshmen at the Cape May campus came in straight from high school, about 27 percent of the county’s public high school graduates. That’s a 9 percent increase from 2005, when 161 students, or 18 percent of high school graduates enrolled.
All four county public high schools send at least 20 percent of their graduates to the campus this year, college data show. Middle Township High School has 40 percent of its senior class, a record 98 students, at the college. School Superintendent Michael Kopakowski said they have had a close relationship with Atlantic Cape that goes back to offering high school classrooms for use by the college while the campus was being built.
“With the economy the way it is, this is just an outstanding resource,” he said.
Both Middle Township and Ocean City participate in dual credit and concurrent enrollment programs that allow students to get college credits while still in high school. Mora said his next plan is to reach into the middle schools, something Kopakowski supports.
“You have to get students to start thinking earlier about college,” he said. “And today students can’t not think about going to college for some training.”
Two colleges in one
The staff is working to create a college atmosphere for students who may spend the whole day on site: They’ve added lounge areas and clubs. The campus has wireless Internet access.
“I think before, they didn’t really feel like part of the college,” said Gentile, who started as a teacher in Rio Grande before there was a campus. “There was no social-emotional connection. Now there is.”
English teacher Regina Van Epps, of Upper Township, has been with Atlantic Cape for 15 years, and said having a campus has created a community of learners.
“Everything is right here,” she said. “We’ve got counselors, financial aid, a library and computer lab, all in one building.”
Van Epps said that years ago, most of the college’s students were adults earning an associate degree so they could move into a supervisory position at work. Those students still attend, mostly at night, but the daytime is full of students already planning to transfer to a four-year college once they graduate from Atlantic Cape.
Matt Terry, 19, of Ocean City, plans to transfer to either Rowan University or Richard Stockton College. He spent a semester at the community college’s Mays Landing campus, but likes the Cape May campus better because it is smaller and quieter and everything is in one building.
“It’s affordable and it’s close to home,” he said. “My parents like that, too.”
He does wish the campus had more activities and sports, which are offered in Mays Landing. Gentile said they are working to offer more, but one drawback of a small campus is having fewer students to tap. Students would also like programs like culinary and nursing to be available in Cape May, but the logistics and cost of the equipment make that difficult, Mora said.
Gentile said the only real failure at the Cape campus has been the cafeteria, which did not do enough business to survive. Court House Pizza operates a small takeout place, which seems to be working, Gentile said, but she would like to get more use out of the space.
Another drawback is limited bus service in the county. NJ Transit does run a bus to the campus, but not often enough and not always at convenient times, students said.
“I sat out here for hours one day waiting for a bus,” said Katie Huston, 18, of the Villas section of Lower Township. “And it was a really hot day.”
Beyond campus events
Students aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the college’s campus. Forty-four businesses and 81 community agencies have done training programs or held meetings or events there.
Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, said they work as partners with the college on many chamber seminars and events, and their only complaint is that sometimes the college is already booked and can’t accommodate them.
“They’ve offered job training, and have Internet and video-conferencing services that many businesses won’t have,” she said.
The college also offers offers worker re-training programs and Ricky Johnson, 50, of Cape May Court House, and Shaun Jones, 48, of Avalon, are both going back to college to learn new careers. Johnson, a disabled veteran, is studying to be an X-ray technician, and will take courses at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point when he’s finished with his basic academic courses at Atlantic Cape.
“I can ride my bicycle here,” he said. “It’s a great campus. The VA gave me the opportunity to do this and it’s a thrill.”
Jones was a vendor for Herr’s Foods, but is now hoping for a new job that requires less heavy lifting.
“I’m not getting any younger, and I can’t do the heavy physical work any more,” said Jones, whose daughter is also a student at the college.
“She helps me out,” he said, “and the counselors and teachers here are all really helpful especially for us older, non-traditional students. I even made the dean’s list last semester.”
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