By next fall, community college students in Cumberland and Gloucester counties could be attending the Rowan College of South Jersey in a move that officials hope will promote growth at both institutions.
Officials from Cumberland County College and Rowan College at Gloucester County joined together this week to announce the signing of an agreement that would begin the process of merging the two-year institutions.
“You can stay still and take the status quo or you can change,” Rowan College at Gloucester County President Frederick Keating said. “If we don’t go with it, we’re going to be left behind.”
The idea of the colleges merging was floated in the spring and garnered the support of the counties’ Boards of Freeholders as Cumberland County College faced a $2 million budget deficit.
Rowan College at Gloucester County has seen an increase in enrollment by 3.4 percent since its 2014 agreement with Rowan University, while enrollment at Cumberland County College has been waning, resulting in a direct impact on the budget and layoffs.
Details were sparse during a news conference Wednesday, but the agreement puts in motion the Middle State Commission approval process, according to Cumberland County College merger liaison Robert Clark.
“Our major goal is to stabilize,” Clark said.
He said that if approved, the merger will result in one board of trustees, one president, but that two campuses will be maintained.
“In that model, it’s one college and students can attend on either campus,” he said, depending on their program and their place of residence.
Clark said there will be very little change in how students would apply to the college. The colleges believe there will also be a cost savings due to shared services and elimination of duplicate services, but did not elaborate on numbers.
Keating said merger process is spelled out in New Jersey statute, although the two community colleges would be the first existing institutions to undertake the process. Keating compared it to how Atlantic and Cape May counties partnered to form Atlantic Cape Community College, although the latter lacked a facility.
“We’re in unchartered water because we both exist,” he said.
Keating said that employee contracts will need to reworked but believes that won’t be an issue.
“We’ve knocked out most of what could be a complicated marriage,” he said.
The colleges have set a date of July 1 for the merger to happen and have taken an ambitious approach to accreditation, with a projected decision date as early as March.
“By joining with another institution, we will be a stronger organization in general,” said Christine Ward Garrison, vice chairwoman for the Cumberland County College Board of Trustees.
Ward Garrison said that in addition to increasing enrollment, the merger will help provide more programming for students in the region.
“And we’re not afraid to think as a region,” she said.
The same partnership that Gloucester County currently has with Rowan University — which affords students certain benefits, including the opportunity to graduate with a bachelor’s degree — will be extended to the new institution.
While both colleges have signed the memorandum of understanding to pursue the accreditation process, there is still much to do. A preliminary application was sent in to Middle States last week.
Cumberland County College interim President Shelly Schneider said there will be open public meetings about the merger as the process gets underway.
“We believe we need to have open forums that will be open to our students,” she said, as well as alumni and residents.