Mayoral Musing: College Merger

Last Edited: Sep 13, 2018 8:00 AM -04:00
Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly
BRIDGETON, N.J. -

The merger of our county college and Rowan may be the perfect opportunity to chart a new course.

If you’ve been keeping an eye on news in our area, you’ve no doubt read the recent articles about the possible merger of Cumberland County Community College and Rowan College to create “Rowan College of South Jersey.” There are some people who oppose such a merger, but I’m not one of them. While I understand the desire to have a traditional county college dedicated exclusively to serving the residents of Cumberland County, much has changed over the course of a generation, and the way we do community college must change as well.   

Not coming from the world of higher education, I have perspectives that are first and foremost those of the average consumer. That said, over the last several years as a mayor concerned with the growth and well-being of my community, I’ve been compelled to consider everything that might impact revitalization, whether for the short term or the long term, and this includes the role of the community college.

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I say that, because there are no magic bullets when it comes to turning things around in a resource-poor community or county. There are the shorter term things to be sure—things such as new construction, redevelopment projects, and infrastructure improvements—but these are only part of the picture and they mostly have to do with brick and mortar on a timeline of a few years. The other consideration is the people and what opportunities they will have and whether or not they will be ready to seize opportunities when they arrive.

This idea of investing in people as our greatest resource and readying them for future opportunity is more about the long term—a generation perhaps—and it is precisely here that our community college can have its biggest impact; however, it may well require changing more than just college governance. In fact, it may require changing the product, the branding, and the way the product engages and serves its customers. It may require a full reset like our county college and Rowan College merging to create “Rowan College of South Jersey.”

As I said, much has changed over the course of a generation and that includes both students and employers. Gone are the days when a two-year liberal arts degree opened doors because it signaled something meaningful to a prospective employer. Today, everything is more specialized so that even entry level positions require certain skill sets or “hard skills,” and the community college may be the best place to address this new normal. At the same time that the employment landscape has changed, the average student has also changed.

One thing I constantly hear from those who work in higher education is that far too many students are in need of remedial instruction in math, English, or whatever, because they simply lack the foundation to do college-level work. The other issue has to do with “soft skills,” which are different from hard skills. Soft skills include everything from presentation (read dress) and listening, to resolving conflicts, teamwork, leadership, time-management, attendance, attitude, courteousness, and multi-tasking. Perhaps these might also become part of a new community college framework.

The merger of Cumberland County Community College and Rowan College may be the perfect opportunity to chart this new course. If I’m right about remedial needs and specialization and soft skills, then this might be the moment to create this new product at the proposed “Rowan College of South Jersey” (RCSJ).

It’s really about building bridges and tiers. If the remedial track is a starting point for some, then it is also a bridge because it can lead to the more specialized track. By the same token, this is also a prime opportunity to expand the college footprint in Bridgeton in order to better serve the residents on the western side of Cumberland County, such as students who have English as a second language and adults going back to school later in life after years in the workforce.

My point is that this merger, at least to my mind, is not about the failure or deficiency of one college or the other so much as it is about maximizing the strengths of each and creating a framework that is adaptable and responsive—not to what we want a typical community college student to be, but to the students we have. There are moments that lend themselves to creativity and experimentation and when the moment passes, it often doesn’t show itself again. This is our moment.

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