Atlantic Cape Community College celebrates commencement each year with a colorful ceremony awash in the blue, red and gold of graduates' gowns and stoles and alive with the stirring strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." In the 30 years I have attended this event, the college has grown dramatically, but graduation day has remained a constant. It represents the culmination of all that students, faculty and staff strive for as we focus on the prize of the diplomas being awarded that day.
Each year the stories I hear there move me. I dab at tears and smooth down goosebumps as I listen to our graduates' tales of struggle and triumph on the way to obtaining their education. For marching in the procession is an astonishingly diverse group of learners - urban residents first in their family to attend college, NJ STARS scholars, immigrants from Russia and South Asia, single mothers raising young children, unemployed casino workers and young adults forced to leave four-year colleges when their money ran out.
Community colleges such as Atlantic Cape enroll 45 percent of all American undergraduates and educate about half of all minorities and first-generation college students. Talk to our graduates and many will tell you they didn't think they could ever earn a degree - they weren't "college material" or were too poor or too constrained by work and family obligations. When they reach out and grasp that diploma, it means something to them-the opportunity for a better life.
But this year as I looked at that rippling sea of mortarboards and proud, expectant faces, I couldn't help thinking about another group - those who did not cross the stage, students who started college with high hopes, but somehow fell by the wayside or are still struggling to make progress in school.
College leaders and lawmakers around the state and nation are focused as never before on graduation rates, and they aren't satisfied with what they see.
Nationwide, fewer than half of all students who enter community college with the goal of earning a certificate or degree have met their goal six years later. Citing education as a pathway to economic prosperity, President Barack Obama challenged community colleges to produce an additional five million graduates by 2020. This move to boost graduation rates has become a national priority for lawmakers, groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and college and student leaders.
A look at the challenges community college students face explains why this issue requires such exhaustive action. Nationwide, 42 percent of freshmen take at least one remedial class and 46 percent of all two-year college students receive some form of financial aid. More than 80 percent work, 16 percent are single parents and 12 percent have disabilities.
Community colleges were established as open-door institutions to provide those with limited educational opportunities a pathway to higher education. In the push to increase graduation rates, it is important that policymakers not penalize these vulnerable students by rationing remedial education or otherwise restricting access.
New Jersey's two-year colleges are collaborating to improve student success through the wide-ranging Big Ideas Project. And Atlantic Cape, led by President Peter Mora, last year began a college-wide Student Success Initiative. A key part of this ongoing effort is the college's membership in Achieving the Dream, a nationwide reform network that uses evidence-based approaches and shares best practices to increase success rates, particularly for low-income and minority students.
Because financial issues often sideline students, Atlantic Cape is conducting its first major gifts campaign, a $2.5 million effort to create opportunity by expanding scholarships and enhancing the learning environment. It also has earmarked about $5 million to create Student Success Centers on all three of its campuses, facilities that will provide career planning, tutoring and skills labs.
When Mora speaks about improving student success, he also underscores the importance of maintaining access. Providing such access to those who most need it pays off for students.
Indira Pearce of Somers Point, Atlantic Cape's 2013 high honor student, is one such learner. In her 30s, with family responsibilities and a recession-ravaged career, she mustered the courage to enroll in Atlantic Cape, but needed remedial math to get started. She graduated with a perfect 4.0 average and will continue her studies at Rutgers University. Ultimately, she hopes to conduct neurological research in the field of psychology. In her class farewell, Indira said, "How lucky we are to graduate from the kind of school that takes students who think they can't and turns them into students who can and do."
We need to provide the skills and the environment where many more Indiras can cross the stage in years to come. Let's ensure they can.
Kathleen J. Corbalis, of Mays Landing, is executive director of college relations at Atlantic Cape Community College and associate director of its foundation. She will retire this summer after 30 years at the school.