Rowan University officially became New Jersey's third research university on July 1, joining Rutgers and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

"Brace yourself for impact,"advises a new billboard on Route 55 heading toward the college's Glassboro campus, now one of three Rowan sites, including the new Cooper Medical School (CMSRU) in Camden and the School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) in Stratford.

On the surface the changes might seem largely symbolic - new patches on the lab coats of the SOM students and Rowan University lapel pins on the staff.

But the potential impact signals a new era of prominence for both Rowan and its South Jersey counterpart, Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township.

This year Stockton opened satellite sites in Hammonton and Manahawkin. Workers are putting the finishing touches on a state of-the-art science building that this fall will expand the college's role in science education and research on such issues as beach erosion and sustainability.

Both regional public colleges also are taking on larger roles as drivers of industry. Rowan and Stockton each operate technology parks, which so far have shown more promise than progress. The two college presidents said partnerships and cooperation will provide students with state-of-the art educational opportunities, which in turn attract new industry in health, medical and science fields.

In a speech Monday at SOM in Stratford, Rowan president Ali Houshmand promised the new Rowan would provide students in the southern part of the state with access to college, affordability and quality. He called the college "an economic engine to lift the region."

"I promise you, the rest of the country will learn from us," he told a packed auditorium. "This is my commitment to you."

But don't expect it to happen overnight.

Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp said progress in higher-education is a long-term process that can take five, 10 or even 20 years to reach its goal.

Houshmand even joked about the often sluggish pace of change in academia, asking, "How many tenured professors does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer: "Change? Why change?"

Still, Rowan is promising big changes over the next decade: doubling its enrollment to 24,000 students and adding new majors at all levels in fields of science, technology, engineering, medicine and business; quadrupling research funding from $24 million to $100 million; and growing its endowment from $160 million to $500 million.

Stockton's Pinelands location will limit its main campus' growth, but Saatkamp sees total undergraduate and graduate enrollment growing steadily from the current 8,400 to about 10,000.

Both presidents said they see partnerships in the future that will give Stockton students access to Rowan medical and engineering programs, and Rowan students access to Stockton physical therapy, technology and hospitality offerings.

"We are looking for ways to have natural collaborations," Houshmand said. "We can share resources without having the huge expense of starting up new programs."

State Sen. Donald Norcross, D-Camden, talked Monday about the opportunities for Rowan, Rutgers and Stockton that could create a research triangle in South Jersey. He said Rowan and Rutgers are linked by the health sciences and Rowan and Stockton are linked by the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township.

Houshmand said linking all of the colleges and their tech parks could help turn South Jersey into a destination, like Silicon Valley.

Rowan trustee James Gruccio, an attorney in Vineland who is finishing his 12th and final year on the college board, said Cumberland County is impacted by what happens in the counties surrounding it, and it would be natural for the county to benefit from growth at the colleges.

"You have to look at all six counties in South Jersey as one unit," he said, "with all of the colleges collaborating, including the community colleges.We are trying to turn that ripple-down effect into a watershed."

Saatkamp and Houshmand said it would be beneficial for the colleges to keep their own identities and programs, so students have choices.

Saatkamp said Stockton would still want to keep its identity as a liberal arts college that gives students personal attention and helps them develop a skill set that will make them successful in any field.

"We do have more professional degrees now in nursing, businesses, the sciences, but businesses don't just want professional skills, they want people who can communicate, analyze and solve problems," he said.

Freshmen enrollment at Stockton has continued to grow steadily at about two percent a year. It topped 1,000 incoming freshmen for the first time in the fall. More students already are coming from North Jersey, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign that began in 2009. Dean of Enrollment John Iacovelli said the college has to deliver on its promises to maintain small class sizes, access to faculty and state-of-the-art facilities.

'We want to complement Rowan, not compete with them," he said.

Dean of Natural Sciences and Math Dennis Weiss already has moved into his office in the new science building at Stockton. He talked about how faculty offices are linked to the labs so professors are near the students, and how much more work they will be able to do with 11 teaching labs and 14 faculty research labs.

"We really are stepping into the 21st century," Weiss said. "I'm excited about the opportunity we have to move science forward in South Jersey."

Contact Diane D'Amico: