All two-year colleges across the country have seen a growing pool of associate's degree candidates, but only a handful of community colleges in New Jersey have translated increasing demand into high degree completion rates.
According to Community College Week's annual analyses of U.S. Department of Education data, out of the state's 19 community colleges, only Brookdale Community, Bergen Community and Camden County colleges have ranked among the top 3 percent of two-year colleges by associate's degree completion since 2007, while Middlesex County College and Ocean County College joined the top 100 list in 2011 and maintained their ranks this year.
According to the presidents of both a veteran and a newcomer to the list, the surest ways for community colleges to improve their degree completion rates are expanding their reach through satellite centers and optimizing their space and academic programs to meet the needs of new student populations.
A big part of the equation is "providing access to higher education for students who are often juggling school, work and family, and can't get to a main campus with any kind of ease," said Brookdale President Maureen Murphy. Brookdale's main campus is in Lincroft, but "we established other locations in semi-strategic places where the people who need them are — and now, those locations are bursting at the seams. Because of that, I think our future growth is coming from those offsites."
While Middlesex County College also saw a boost in its associate's degree completion rate after it added offsite locations in New Brunswick and Perth Amboy, its president, Joann La Perla-Morales, said future expansion will "not come from building more buildings, but from using our existing facilities more, like on weekends and evenings" to better meet the changing demographics.
"We've always been a very young high school graduate institution, but … we're on a path now where we're increasing in areas we never thought we would before, like expanding Saturday classes and offering late-start semesters for students not ready to start school in September," she said.
Though Murphy has also seen a change in student demographics — noting "the young demographic is not enough to keep us going any more" — she said Brookdale has captured the shrinking pool by developing partnerships with primary schools throughout Monmouth County, and offering bachelor's and master's degree completion programs through local four-year universities right on its campuses.
In fact, both Murphy and La Perla-Morales said they have adjusted their programs to focus less on preparing younger students for four-year colleges and more on providing older students with the skills they need for specific careers in growing industries, like health care and hospitality.
"It's interesting now that the distinction between our credit and noncredit work force development programs is getting blurred, because people are looking more for skills, not degrees," Murphy said. "We're putting in programs that make sense for different parts of the county to support jobs in those areas, and I think in some way that's providing the education and motivation people need to complete degrees."