MAYS LANDING — Community colleges nationally and in New Jersey have begun a movement to improve completion rates by developing programs to help students finish on time and raising awareness of the benefits of getting their associate degree in a timely manner.

Atlantic Cape Community and Cumberland County colleges held events Thursday to promote the Community College Completion Challenge, or C4, asking students to sign a banner saying they “Commit to Complete.”

Only 5 percent of Atlantic Cape’s full-time freshmen who started class in fall 2011 graduated two years later. The graduation rate increased to 18 percent after three years, and an additional 16 percent transferred to another college before getting their degree.

But even successful students admit there are life challenges that make it hard to finish in two or even three years. College officials said more students eventually do graduate, even if it takes much longer. About half of all students attend part time, and some who start full time later cut back because of work or family demands.

Many are nontraditional students who are older, working and may have families, so college is not always their first priority. Speakers at Atlantic Cape said they just have to keep moving toward the goal.

Mary’Ana Harmon, 22, of Atlantic City, won this year’s essay contest on choosing a major, saying that while students can take their time and explore courses their first year, by their second year they have to narrow their interests and focus on a degree plan.

“Time will feel like it’s not in your favor,” she said. “But you have to apply yourself.”

Harmon will graduate in May, having taken four years to get her associate degree in general studies and psychology. She plans to transfer to the Rutgers Lifelong Learning Center on the Atlantic Cape campus to complete a bachelor’s degree and hopes to work with people with disabilities. She is already working at The Arc of Atlantic County.

“I have a full-time job, and I started with just two classes and worked my way up,” she said. “I am going to finish.”

The state’s 19 community colleges have developed programs to help students succeed. Almost 40 percent of full-time students and 60 percent of part-time students in local county colleges do not return for their second year, according to the colleges’ annual report data.

As many as two of every three first-time students must take at least one remedial course, which is cited as one reason many take so long to graduate, or drop out. Atlantic Cape has begun a program to expedite remedial courses so students who just need a refresher can also start taking their college-level courses.

Finances are also an issue. The average cost to attend a state community college was about $4,320 a year in 2013-14, much less expensive than four-year state colleges at $12,600, but still costly for students who may also be supporting themselves or a family. Federal Pell grants, the GI Bill, state Tuition Aid Grants and the NJ STARS scholarship program help but may not cover all costs.

Cumberland County College has a large School Counts scholarship program that helps make college more affordable by promising free tuition and fees to eligible high school graduates.

In 2013, Atlantic Cape awarded more than $173,000 in scholarships to 174 students.

Ocean County College offers a free summer class to students who meet credit requirements.

Several older students and graduates are embarking on second careers.

Indira Pearce, 36, of Somers Point, had worked at a casino since 1997, then got laid off during cutbacks in 2009.

“I was a top performer, but that didn’t matter, and it scared me,” she said. She found another job but also enrolled at Atlantic Cape.

“I had a kid, a husband and a mortgage,” she said. “Atlantic Cape was economical and convenient. I did it slowly but surely, but it was still a lot of commitment.”

She graduated from Atlantic Cape in 2013 and is now taking classes at the Rutgers site while working full time at Harrah’s Resort. She advised students to use the resources of the college, including the tutoring center and library.

Tommar Scott, 35, of Absecon, spent four years in the Marines and then worked in marketing for the Trump casinos before leaving to start his own business. He got an associate degree from Atlantic Cape in 2012, a business degree from Rutgers in 2014 and is working on his master’s in business administration. He advised any student thinking about starting a business to take business courses, and told students to follow their passion, but also figure out a way to make a living at it.

“When you own a small business, you wear many hats,” he said. “I keep the books, I designed the website.”

T.J. Branin, 23, of Hammonton, is president of the Atlantic Cape chapter of Phi Theta Kappa and will graduate in May, taking 3½ years to get his degree. He then plans to get a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

“It took me some time, but I finally dedicated myself to finishing,” he said, adding his time at Atlantic Cape has helped him grow as a person.

“I feel like I’m not just learning math, I am also learning to be a leader,” he said.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241

@ACPressDamico on Twitter

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