WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — As one door closes, another one is opening for higher education in Cumberland County.
The community college had a rebirth on Monday, officially merging with Gloucester County to become Rowan College of South Jersey.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the people that I work with at this campus and the people at Cumberland and how it came together. We were going where nobody has gone before,” said Frederick Keating, who was once the president at Gloucester and is now heading the new unified college. “That’s what you’re seeing sitting on the stage: This is the intersection of vision and courage.”
The Board of Trustees for the new college, which includes representatives from both Cumberland and Gloucester counties, met together before the ceremony for the first time to sign the agreement.
This marked the final step of the process that began more than a year ago with talks and negotiations between freeholders and college officials.
“John Wooden said, ‘Change is never fatal but failure to change might be,’ and I think we’re going to make a change that’s going to make a true legacy for us in the future,” Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella said Friday after the Cumberland college board officially disbanded in preparation for the merge.
This merger of two existing community colleges is the first of its kind in the state, and state and local officials recognized the historic nature of their commitment.
“What we’re doing is recreating county college. We’re making county college now something that it has never been viewed as — legitimate,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Monday. “County colleges were always wonderful. County colleges were always outstanding, but no one ever gave it the credentials and the credibility that it has now.”
Sweeney was joined on the stage by Congressman Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, Donald Norcross and Cumberland and Gloucester County Freeholders.
“I love South Jersey, and I love when we’re on the cutting edge,” Van Drew said, “and today we are on the cutting edge. We are doing what is right. We’re thinking faster, smarter, sharper.”
Outgoing Cumberland County College Board of Trustees Chairwoman Donna Perez, who will serve on the new board, said Friday that “bold action” was needed to combat the declining enrollment and decreasing revenue.
“The result is an exciting new regional partnership,” she said, which will improve educational services, resources and affordability for students.
Perez said that Rowan College of South Jersey can become a model for the rest of the country and the state.
The merger talks were announced last year as Cumberland County College, facing a $2 million deficit, sought to stabilize finances and increase enrollment.
Derella said at the time that declining enrollment — 26% over 5 years — had exacerbated the financial problems at the college, which have been stalled through administrative cuts over the years. There were fears that the school would close for good if no action was taken.
After joining the Rowan College family in 2014, Gloucester County College was renamed and a seamless pathway to a four-year degree with Rowan University for students was put in place.
In 2015, Burlington County College entered into a similar deal with Rowan.
Both institutions saw increases in enrollment and students were able to achieve significant savings on a four-year degree.
Officials said the merger will also create a corridor of educational opportunity, including in the health industry, along Route 55.
Keating reported it will be a rate of $152 per credit.
“Through this partnership, we’re not only creating access and affordability, but more importantly we’re bringing the education to the regions, to the counties based on the needs of these counties based on the economies of these counties,” said Rowan University President Ali A. Houshmand.
Current and former students said Friday they were excited about the advantages they will now have as part of the Rowan College family.
“It’s going to offer a lot of new opportunities for students. We have a lot of opportunities already, and I think the partnership with Rowan will make it even greater,” said Kristin DellaVecchia, 30, of Vineland.
DellaVecchia graduated from Cumberland County College and is now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in social work at Georgian Court’s local campus.
Student Stephanie Cruz, 32, of Vineland, said change is good, and oftentimes necessary for growth. Cruz is going for her associate’s degree in business at Cumberland County and said the merger with Rowan will expose her to new people and job opportunities.
Rowan College of South Jersey will operate over two campuses at the Cumberland and Gloucester colleges. There will be one president and one board of trustees.
Members of the board of trustees are J. Kenneth Mecouch, Yolanda Balicki, Donna Perez, Jean DuBois, Len Daws, Benjamin Griffith, Douglas Wills, Gene Concordia and Ruby Love.