The Reinvention of Higher Education
As colleges and universities continue to face serious challenges, they are modifying their approach, collaborating with business leaders and offering more programs to keep students coming.
There was a time in the recent past when Rowan University was still somewhat of an enigma, even here in South Jersey. Joe Cardona, now the vice president for university relations at his alma mater, remembers getting hired in the 1990s and coming across residents from as close as Camden County or Burlington County who didn’t know much about the Glassboro school or have much interest in it.
Fast forward to today, and it’s hard for anyone in this region or even beyond the state borders to ignore everything that Rowan is accomplishing. Almost unrecognizable from the university it was in the early 2000s, Rowan has transformed its pocket of Gloucester County, expanded at an impressive rate and built strong partnerships in a number of fields that are expected to have a profound impact for decades to come.
“When they start looking at the numbers, people are amazed at what Rowan University has to offer,” Cardona says. “We’re the third-fastest growing research university and we’re in the top 100 of public research universities in the country. When you realize that, you’re like, ‘Holy smokes, where did that come from?’ Frankly, it’s all been in the last decade. We’ll soon be one of only two universities in the nation to have an MD program, a DO program and a veterinary medicine program—that’s three medical schools. If you were describing that at a school in Chicago or something, you would be saying what a great university it is. But it’s right here in South Jersey.”
Under the leadership of Dr. Ali Houshmand, who became Rowan’s seventh president in 2012, the university has more than doubled its enrollment in that period while focusing on affordable, high-quality education and making an economic impact in the region. And what makes its success all the more satisfying is that it comes at a time when higher education across the country is facing severe challenges.
Rising costs, student debt and declining enrollment numbers were already major problems before the pandemic struck and threw the traditional educational model into a tailspin. Colleges have started to recover but now are addressing concerns about student safety and mental health.
“I’ve got 50 years in higher education and this has been the toughest [period],” says Dr. Fred Keating, president of Rowan College of South Jersey, which encompasses the schools formerly known as Gloucester County College and Cumberland County College. “The pandemic brought us to our knees and we know what it did to education, what it did to businesses—it came in and smacked us all. We’re coming out, we think, and now we’re trying to turn the lights back on and figure out where we go from here. It’s a whole different world.
“Higher education doesn’t move quickly on anything … but this is our most vulnerable time and we have to reinvent ourselves.”
The following is a look at how some of the challenges are being met from the perspective of the colleges and universities themselves to workforce development boards and organizations helping students at the high school level prepare for the next steps on their journey.
There is an approaching trend that all colleges across the nation are aware of known as the “enrollment cliff.” With fewer children born between 2008 and 2011, thought to be a result of the stress over the Great Recession, the number of college-aged adults starting in 2025 will drop significantly, meaning that already struggling enrollment numbers will be affected even more.
But Rowan has been preparing for this situation over the past decade and believes it has positioned itself well thanks to additional infrastructure, advanced programs, and partnerships with companies like Amazon and Lockheed Martin to develop coursework for their employees. It all harkens back to the administration’s commitment to growth and relationships in the community and throughout the state.
“Rowan University is in a very unique situation where we’re in the right place at the right time,” Cardona says. “South Jersey is growing, and we’ve been fortunate to have the support of both Republicans and Democrats in state government. Chris Christie and Phil Murphy and everyone else see that South Jersey is a place that needs to grow to help the economy of New Jersey, and we’ve been able to do that.
“We have a president who is very business-minded and we’ve worked together with different partners, like the partnership we just did with Virtua [for a second medical school]. That’s very unique and we are very agile and flexible. That ends up allowing us to develop programs for students in a way that meets their needs, and that’s what’s positioned us to where we are today.”
Rowan’s alignment with community colleges in Burlington and Gloucester counties has also been crucial, leading to the 3+1 program. It essentially allows students to receive a bachelor’s degree at an affordable rate by completing the first three years at Rowan College of Burlington County or Rowan College of South Jersey and then finishing up the final year at Rowan University.
“We have purposely made it so there are multiple pathways to get to Rowan University,” Cardona says. “You don’t have to come as a freshman: You can go to the community college and their curriculum is perfectly aligned with ours so there’s an easy transition. It’s not just the physical transition of your credits transferring, but the entire curriculum is looked at to make sure there isn’t a drop when you come from the community college to the four-year college. It’s as if you were here the whole time. That was revolutionary when Dr. Houshmand proposed that and finally the state made it into law to allow other community colleges and universities to be able to do that.”
With mental health being top of mind for this generation, Rowan has also focused on retention of current students by setting up a system where professors can share information about those who may be struggling in class and offering them counselors if needed.
Put all of these factors together and Rowan is only getting stronger at a time when other colleges are being forced to close their doors.
“Nationwide there are a lot of schools we’re going to lose, and New Jersey is going to lose a handful of schools,” Cardona says. “For the smaller schools that only have 2,000 or 3,000 students, it’s really tough to balance the budget. They just charge too much money for students and students will have other alternatives. You have big public entities like us, Montclair State, Rutgers, NJIT and even Stockton that will feel the dip, but it won’t be devastating. The smaller schools, like Cabrini or Holy Family in Philadelphia, they might not make it. … At the end of the day, it’s really about what you are offering the region.”
Changing the game
At schools like Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ), declining enrollment has led to just as much focus being put on recruiting non-traditional students as traditional high school seniors. That means welcoming in those already in the workforce who are seeking credentials that will allow them to rise to better positions in their companies, or even unemployed people in need of additional skills.
To that end, the Gloucester County Workforce Development Board (WDB) recently merged with RCSJ and relocated to campus, which has been a successful move, according to Michelle Shirey, executive director.
“It has helped bring a better focus on workforce development to educational institutions but also for anyone who is looking to get credentials or do upskilling or go on a new career path,” she says. “Being on the same college campus gives people access to all of that, whether it’s students or adult learners—who we primarily focus on—or individuals who do not have a GED or high school diploma. They can come to one spot, Rowan College of South Jersey, and get all of those credentials, most of which are grant-funded. … Those skills could be credentials, upskilling, a GED, an associate’s degree or even a bachelor’s degree. Those are the clients we’re seeing now, people who are looking for a more stable and sustainable career path—not just a job, but a real career path that can bring them through life and help them increase their income and support families.”
A large part of the WDB’s mission is industry engagement: collaborating with local and regional employers to identity their workforce needs, and then building programs around those needs. Current employees can be enrolled and it’s a win-win for both the workers and the company.
“It gives that person the additional skill sets to put on their resume, to move up, to get a career path, to get a promotion and elevate their role in the company,” Shirey says. “And it helps the company so they don’t have to go out and find these people, they can just hire from within.”
She believes initiatives like these are benefitting residents throughout South Jersey and the next step is just creating more awareness so people know what resources are available. The Gloucester County WDB and similar organizations in neighboring counties also help to identify opportunities in emerging industries like aviation and aeronautics, biosciences, film production and beer and wine production.
“I have the best partners in Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem, Cape May, Burlington and Camden counties,” Shirey says. “We all work together to figure out the right career path and the right skills for all of these industries, and then guide learners—whether they’re students, adults or women in transition—to the right career path, ultimately aligning them with a job at the end. You don’t just want a job, you want a career. I can get you a job if you come in tomorrow, and that’s great, and some people want that. But a career pathway is a process with a lot of steps and a lot of partnerships with a lot of organizations involved to get people a sustainable job and a career that can last a lifetime.”
Similar to Shirey’s work with the WDB, Keating’s philosophy revolves around constant communication with businesses to develop academic programs, courses and certifications that will attract more students and produce the workforce that companies need.
“With the college changes, our new game is to go after industry,” he says. “We thought education was the dog and we wag the tail of labor—we know what you need, we’ll prepare the students and you’ll get them. But we now believe it’s the complete opposite. … You tell us what you need, and those are the credentials we’ll go get and the students we’ll recruit and provide directly to you, if you support us monetarily with research and development, programming, and scholarships for the students who want to come.”
Last year, RCSJ and Inspira created an alliance to educate and retain health care professionals in the community, particularly to address a shortage of nurses across the region. The Gloucester campus will soon break ground on a new center that will be one of the few in New Jersey to train respiratory therapists. Other emerging industries the college is engaged with include behavioral health, wind energy, business and finance, and Keating says he gets asked about the cannabis industry on a daily basis and “it’s the next one on the plate.”
He also believes some form of college education can be beneficial to those in the labor unions, automotive technicians or young entrepreneurs with the goal of owning a business. Depending on the field, students can get important experiential learning opportunities and certifications that will prove valuable to their careers.
“If I was a family today putting a son or daughter through college, I’d want a multi-credentialed degree—I don’t want just a baccalaureate,” Keating says. “I want at least one, if not two certificates embedded in it, and then if you can get me an associate’s degree too, why not? You come out multi-credentialed in your field with experiential learning from an internship or apprenticeship, so you have it all when you sit down for a job.”
Preparing at a young age
It used to be that high school students would meet regularly with their guidance counselor and then embark on a college search with their parents, but in today’s world there are a number of resources available to enhance the process. One example is Access College and Career Consultants, LLC, an organization founded by Stephanie Welder in 2010. Welder, who has a background in education, studies the trends in college admissions and uses her knowledge to help families prepare all materials and identify the right schools.
“When we build a college list, we look for fit in three areas,” she says. “The first one is academic. Is it academically appropriate? Is it going to lead to the degree or training that they need? The second one is social fit. Is this a place where the student is going to feel comfortable? If the student is accustomed to doing four hours a night of homework in high school, are they going to be with students who also like to spend their time studying?
“And then there’s the financial fit, because if the student can’t afford to complete the degree, they get themselves in a lot of financial problems. We hear all the time about the debt that students owe; the vast majority of that is to for-profit colleges who are not honest about what it’s actually going to cost in time and money. The students who choose to go there by and large are in over their heads financially. That’s not to say that going to a four-year, not-for-profit college isn’t expensive too, because it is.”
Welder supports dual enrollment programs that are offered in some high schools, allowing students to earn college credits before even stepping foot on campus. She also sees value in programs like the 3+1 offered at Rowan, and feels some people wrongly look down on community colleges.
“One thing most people don’t realize is that today, most of the people who are teaching in college are adjuncts,” she says. “They teach at maybe three or four colleges and they might teach a course or two at each one. This is cheaper for the colleges because they don’t have to hire a full-time professional faculty. You could go to Camden County Community College or Rowan College at Burlington County and take a course in U.S. history, and that professor is also teaching at Villanova, Rutgers-New Brunswick and a couple of other four-year colleges, and it’s the same course, the same material, the same textbook, and the same exams as if you were a student at Rutgers or Villanova. You’re paying hundreds of dollars instead of thousands of dollars to take that same class.
“When people look down their nose at community college, they’re really cutting off their nose to spite their face because it’s a great way to get those general education courses under your belt and understand that college is a lot harder than high school, there are no do-overs and you only get three grades per semester, so if you mess up you’re really in a world of hurt. Then you can [transfer] to a four-year college where there is more of a college social life and have the on-campus experience later.”
Welder notes that in countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, college degrees are earned in three years, compared to the four that it traditionally takes in the U.S. She foresees that trend coming to American education as well, and in order for colleges to keep students on campus, there has been a rise in 3+1 or 4+1 programs that include graduate degrees.
Like Access College and Career Consultants, NAF aims to prepare students for their future, whether that be higher education or entering the workforce. A national organization operating in 35 states, including New Jersey, NAF partners with high schools and sets up academies to help adolescents discover their passions and get on the right career track.
“We’re kind of like a third party to a school district,” says Dr. Keisha Taylor, senior director, alumni and postsecondary engagement at NAF. “When a district may be thinking about career pathway programs, they look at NAF to support them in the curriculum and the education design around the program. NAF has five career pathways: IT, finance, engineering, health science, and hospitality and tourism. Districts then have access to some of our curriculum and resources to build out programs for students.”
NAF collaborates with workforce development boards in every community it works in to pinpoint industry trends and emerging employment opportunities. A key part of the design is finding experiential learning positions for students once they reach 11th grade, whether through paid internships or internship-like experiences that may be in-person, virtual or a hybrid.
The idea is to get the students started early so they can make sounds decisions about the next step, whatever that may be. Although Taylor herself has strong ties to academics and received her master’s in higher education from Rowan, she realizes that her path isn’t the right one for everybody.
“I think students need to be more informed about their choices,” she says. “For example, apprenticeship programs are great: There’s several weeks of training, there’s job placement and support, there’s continuing education and on-the-job training. If students have more awareness about those programs, it might be a really good fit. We want students to come out [of NAF] with high skills, high-wage jobs and careers—family-sustaining wages. The more training, whether it be academic training or technical training, there’s room at the table for all opportunities.
“High-skills, high-wage jobs are happening in lots of places and spaces. The big part is we want to make sure students have more information so they can inform their future and not be railroaded, so to speak, into a job and feel like they don’t have a choice. It’s really important to feel empowered to make those choices.”