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Leaders in Higher Education Roundtable
How local institutions are rising to the occasion post-pandemic, and what they see for the future of college.

by Liz Hunter

The landscape of higher education has changed since the last generation set foot on campus. Advancements in technology, a debt crisis and a global pandemic are just a few of the factors making an impact on how students choose to pursue a degree. South Jersey Biz approached the leaders of various local institutions to find out how they are adapting to challenges, broadening their educational offerings and better preparing the workforce of tomorrow. What they shared shows that South Jersey’s colleges and universities continue to put students’ needs first, further proving their merit in the higher education arena.

What is the biggest challenge facing your institution that is non-COVID related? 

Ali A. Houshmand, Ph.D., president, Rowan University: One of the biggest challenges for Rowan University, as well as for other institutions, is adapting to quickly shifting societal needs and implementing change within our organization. Rowan is used to rapid and significant change, but it’s a constant challenge to make sure we’re evolving as an institution, not only serving this generation, but two or three generations into the future.


Antonio D. Tillis, Ph.D., chancellor, Rutgers University–Camden: COVID permeates every aspect of our lives right now and likely will do so for some time to come. Rutgers University–Camden is focused on returning to in-person instruction and work in a safe manner, and in helping our students to acclimate to being on campus. We need to develop new ways to support our students’ pathways to success, and we are committed to the construction of a new academic building that will support the growth of our business school.


Donald Borden, president, Camden County College: As was the case even prior to COVID, our biggest challenge is getting more of our students to successfully complete their degree or certificate programs. As is the case with most institutions of higher learning, we all have the potential of helping more of our students successfully navigate their educational journeys and safely land them in a living wage job.


Dr. Michael A. Cioce, president, Rowan College at Burlington County: A combination of fewer traditional-age students and finite resources place a clear need on right-sizing Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC) to ensure we can achieve mission-critical initiatives that help the greatest number of students meet their goals. In an increasingly crowded landscape, it’s becoming more challenging to make sure people are aware of the high-quality educational opportunities at RCBC.


Dr. Stanley Kesselman, president, Stockton University: We live in a rapidly-changing world and higher education must be prepared to address the need for employees trained in areas relating to climate change, health care, business and constantly-advancing technology. Stockton has responded with new programs including our M.S./P.S.M. in Coastal Zone Management, Cannabis Studies Minor and a non-credit Cannabis Certificate series.


What lasting impacts or changes will the pandemic have on your school?

Tillis: The pandemic showed all of higher education that we are nimble and capable of leveraging technology to serve our students. The teaching modules that we developed in response to the pandemic can help Rutgers–Camden to expand its offerings to serve more students and to extend its reach globally. That does not eliminate the need for college campuses. Universities are built—philosophically and physically—for collaboration, not isolation. Innovation is tied to teamwork, and the free flow of ideas that thrives in person. 


The pandemic has exposed many vulnerabilities and inequities in our society. The ability to access technology is not a given for many families; even if a student has good technology and wireless access at home, that student might not have a home environment conducive to learning. The pandemic also exposed challenges to our collective mental health, with a particularly profound impact upon students at every level. At Rutgers–Camden, we are strengthening our mental health supports for our students.


Cioce: I truly believe that higher education will emerge from the pandemic stronger and better equipped for future emergencies. With little time to prepare, Rowan College at Burlington County shifted to a remote environment. That transition was handled quite smoothly, yet identified areas that we can improve on in the future. Government aid has allowed us to mitigate impact on students and make necessary investments for the future that will allow us to switch more rapidly as hybrid learning and live online classes are now a permanent part of our offerings.


I also think we have all gained a new appreciation for face-to-face interaction. Those on-campus meetings that we sometimes complained about before COVID will seem a lot different after one-and-a-half years of meeting over computer screens.


Houshmand: The pandemic impacted the way we think about and invest resources. Rowan University has earned a reputation of being entrepreneurial and forward thinking. The pandemic, however, forced us to fundamentally rethink every aspect of our operations, particularly as it relates to: academics; pricing; diversity, equity and inclusion; flexible workforce; and infrastructure needs. We now have a plan, which we call University of the Future, that positions the university to better serve the state and region for decades to come. 


What steps is your school taking to confront declining enrollment and/or the student debt crisis?

Cioce: Rowan College at Burlington County is home to the first 3+1 program in the eastern United States that has saved students more than $7.1 million in tuition dollars since 2017. In partnership with Rowan University, students can earn an associate and bachelor’s degree for less than what most universities charge for a single year tuition. 


The college launched several targeted financial incentives for different groups of students such as ones who are new, returning after a break or continuing from the spring semester.


We are also planning a debt forgiveness program, but our students have comparatively little debt because of RCBC’s affordable tuition and programs like 3+1.


Tillis: The student debt crisis is a national crisis that impacts every American. Entire generations of college graduates are restrained from fully contributing to our economy due to their debt loads. 


As a first-generation college student, I understand completely the challenges confronting someone who is the first in their family to enroll in college. There is no roadmap for these students. They make decisions without the benefit of family members who had been there and can offer guidance. I know how steep a hill that is to climb. One of the compelling aspects of Rutgers University Camden that attracted me to this institution is its commitment to remaining

affordable and accessible.


We do that through our Bridging the Gap program, a tuition reduction—in some cases, elimination—program [launched in 2016] that has been replicated nationally. … Rutgers–Camden works off of a family’s adjusted gross income, because it’s just unreasonable to expect a family to sell their home or their business to fund a college education. … Bridging the Gap is providing opportunity for a truly diverse range of students, with significant increases in the numbers of Black and Latinx students who are attending Rutgers–Camden. The program boasts a high rate of retention and degree completion, which helps to reverse New Jersey’s brain drain and to keep our best and brightest right here in South Jersey.


What are the most in-demand majors currently and have any new ones come to the fore in recent years?

Borden: We have a huge contingent of pre-nursing and Allied health students and we continue to enroll many students in the areas of business, education and criminal justice as well. Our newest majors focus on areas of cyber security, data analytics and other jobs tied to the changes brought about through advancements in technology. 


Houshmand: Rowan’s two medical schools continue to have record-high application rates, more than 10,000 applications for only 300 seats—combined. STEM-related undergraduate programs continue to draw a lot of interest, as well.


How does your school strive to better serve non-traditional students (who commute, work full-time, care-give, etc.)?


Tillis: First, I would challenge the notion of “traditional” versus “non-traditional” when defining our students. These terms are rooted in the belief that a “traditional” student enrolls directly from high school and takes four years to graduate—in short, it defines students by their age. In reality, Rutgers University–Camden recognizes that we are serving a community of lifelong learners who enter higher education at various and multiple points throughout their lives and careers.

At Rutgers–Camden, we offer career-building, stackable certificates for working professionals through our School of Business. We deliver graduate degree-granting programs through an array of formats—some on campus, some off campus, others online. At the undergraduate level, we deliver a robust array of services to support our students, many of whom commute, which means that they also have responsibilities outside of their roles as students. Each student has a unique set of circumstances; at Rutgers–Camden, we work to help every student achieve their goals. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to student success.


Borden: We try to address student issues on an individual basis. We have childcare on our Blackwood campus, offer both day, evening, and online courses to help working students, provide ample free parking and have public transportation available for all or our students. In addition, we now have a shuttle that runs on the hour between our Blackwood and Camden campuses. Ultimately, whether it be food insecurity, the ability to pay for books or any number of other struggles our students may be encountering, we make every effort, along with the support of our Foundation to find ways to help in any way possible. During the pandemic, this meant providing equipment necessary for online learning, expanded WiFi and financial support as appropriate. 


Cioce: Rowan College at Burlington County strives to meet students where they are so they can balance their studies with the many other priorities in their lives. We have many courses available online and nearly two dozen degrees that can be completed without stepping foot on campus. 


The college is also expanding opportunities for working adults to receive college credit for their work experience through Prior Learning Assessment and development of more focused support structures for specific cohorts such as working adults. 


Kesselman: The majority of our students work and two-thirds are commuters. Classes are offered both during the day and in the evenings to provide flexibility in scheduling and we have increased the number of courses available in fully online or hybrid formats.


While our undergraduate courses are still predominantly in person, we have also developed post-graduate certificates and degrees that can be done totally online.


As higher education institutes face financial struggles, what cost-saving measures may we see them enforce? 

Kesselman: Our Transfer Pathways program is one example of a partnership that benefits both the colleges and students. Students can start at a community college with dual enrollment with Stockton, earn an associate degree, then transfer seamlessly to Stockton to earn their bachelor degree. 


We’re also excited about our new partnership with Camden County College and the Camden Academy Charter High School. Students can earn their associate degree from Camden County College while still in high school, and then seamlessly transfer into Stockton University to complete their final two years of a bachelor’s degree.


Stockton also partnered with the Atlantic City Development Corporation for the development of the Atlantic City campus as a public/private partnership. 


Borden: All one needs to do is look across the river to Pennsylvania to see the merging of six state colleges into two to see the reality of this possibility. We are working collaboratively with our educational partners to be as cost-effective and efficient as possible. There is no question that every institution in the higher education arena is looking at how to remain solvent while continuing to provide educational opportunities that will help our students live the kinds of lives and earn the kind of money they come to us to have.


Houshmand: For the past decade, Rowan has been laser-focused on controlling expenses and providing a high-quality, affordable education to its students. Too many institutions focused on generating revenue—raising tuition—rather than making the difficult decisions needed to weather the enrollment shortfall of the pandemic and the impending demographic cliff just a few years away. In the coming few years, we will see many institutions do what was unimaginable just a few years ago. We will most definitely see more mergers and even closures. Institutions like Rowan, however, will thrive. 


Cioce: Rowan College at Burlington County has been ahead of the curve in terms of partnerships and cost-saving. Most notably, the Rowan University partnership led to the 3+1 program that saves resources for both of the institutions, and dollars (and time) for students. Our campus consolidation a few years ago was a large step toward future-proofing and right-sizing the institution. Operating two main campuses is not a wise investment of finite resources.


One item that has been under-reported has been the collaboration among the N.J. Council of County Colleges, the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and state leadership to update the funding formula for community colleges for the first time in several decades. 


I was privileged to work on this issue with several other college presidents and I’m proud that we are close to finalizing a new formula that will place an emphasis on institutions that help more students progress, complete and succeed, along with the establishment of task forces to ensure that all colleges measure those success metrics in the same way. 


How are you helping the state avoid brain drain?

Tillis: The best way to reverse the brain drain is to provide New Jersey students with the tools they need to succeed right here, and the incentives they need to remain in our state. Debt-reduction programs such as Bridging the Gap at Rutgers–Camden are one example. Connecting our students into the rich diversity and opportunities offered throughout our state—particularly here in South Jersey—is critical, and needs to happen from Day One. Students are looking for opportunities to succeed. Rutgers–Camden is showing them that they can do so right here.


Kesselman: As the only four-year public university in the southeastern part of New Jersey, Stockton is well aware of the crucial role we play in preparing local residents for careers. Stockton offers programs that align to the jobs students and local employers are seeking. 

Our two campuses on 1,600 acres in the Pinelands National Reserve, and on the Atlantic City Boardwalk also offer students a living and learning experience unlike anywhere else in the state.


Houshmand: Most students will stay in New Jersey for quality and affordability. Rowan has made great strides in improving and expanding academic offerings while increasing financial assistance, merit scholarships and waivers—more than $30 million is awarded annually. The pandemic, as did the recession of a decade ago, made people reassess whether going out of state is a good investment. When they look at in-state offerings they are surprised by Rowan’s transformation into a top 100 public research university. 


Where will the school be 10 years from now?

Houshmand: Over the next 10 years, Rowan’s reputation will spread beyond the greater NJ/NY/Pa./Del. region as it continues to climb the rankings. Enrollment will increase incrementally, mostly through online program offerings. More of its programs will be nationally ranked, with students and faculty earning prestigious awards and accolades. More importantly, however, South Jersey’s economy will grow along with it, attracting businesses to the region that seek to partner with the university and benefit from a steady stream of a highly skilled workforce.


Borden: Now that’s the $100,000 question. I know that we will be prepared for almost every eventuality and we will be offering coursework that leads to living wage employment opportunities. We will also continue to work in partnership with high schools, four-year colleges and universities and business/industry leaders to make sure we are meeting the needs of our students and the communities we serve.


Tillis: Rutgers University–Camden will have grown in stature as a national research university, providing the critical mass of scholarship that Camden and South Jersey need in order to become —and to become known as—a global center for innovation. Our enrollment will continue to grow at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, retaining top students from South Jersey while attracting bright minds from around the world to our region. We will add facilities that meet the ambitions of our campus community, and we will have more residential students contributing to Camden’s upward trajectory.


Cioce: Rowan College at Burlington County will be more critical in the coming years, which is saying a lot because we currently provide many vital resources for the community. Community colleges are nimble and flexible; traits that will continue to be tested in the future. Successful colleges will be the ones that continue to evolve in how and when we offer classes, support students in and outside of the classroom and stay relevant with the needs of employers.


Kesselman: Stockton was founded on the idea of a liberal arts education that teaches students to think critically and adapt to a changing world. That mission will be even more critical going forward as graduates are more likely to have multiple jobs that will require learning new skills. Stockton is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021-22 and I am more excited than ever about what the future holds for our university.


What will “college” look like in 10 years?

Borden: Another very interesting question … I do know there will be far more virtual learning. In addition, I believe it will focus on meeting individual student needs versus the student trying to figure out how to work through the college system.


Kesselman: One of Stockton’s earliest motto’s was “plant yourself where you can grow.” It captured our commitment to helping students develop themselves as engaged, responsible citizens, as well as our promise to support the beauty and physical environment of South Jersey. Everything we do on our campus locations—Galloway, Atlantic City, Hammonton, Manahawkin and Woodbine—remains tied to this commitment. While new technologies will continue to shape college learning and offer new opportunities in the years to come, our pledge to help students and South Jersey grow and remain strong and vibrant will always endure.


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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 11, Issue 8 (August 2021).

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