Two-Year and Four-Year Colleges Join to Help Students Cope with Costs

Tara Nurin | January 14, 2016 | Education
Soaring higher-education costs prompt NJ schools to find innovative ways to help ease financial burden

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When Rowan University announced Wednesday that it would allow students who spend three years at specific community colleges to pay $25,000 all told for a bachelor’s degree, it brought home just how radically higher education in New Jersey is changing.

But the Rowan announcement is simply the latest effort to try to deal with the crushing costs of college in New Jersey and to accommodate nontraditional students, many of whom work, have families, and may have to help with aging parents — or spouses or siblings who have lost jobs.

“Life has a way of intervening and causing disruption to schedules,” said Tobey Oxholm, executive vice president for administration and strategic advancement at Rowan.

To deal with these changes, administrators at colleges across the state (and across the country) are asking similar questions.

“How do we build bridges between two-year and four-year institutions?” said Craig Westman, associate chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University-Camden (RUC).

And though these partnerships can take a number of different forms, according to Jake Farbman, of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, three broad models exist: articulation agreements, special partnerships, and degree completion programs.

One thing needs to be made clear, however. These hybrid programs in no way skimp on educational quality. In fact, Mark McCormick, vice president for academic and student affairs at Middlesex Community College, indicates that four of the last five students to win “student of the year” in a fast-track business of nursing B.S. partnership between the college and Felician University have all been Middlesex grads.

Partnerships between two- and four-year colleges appear to be win-win for both the schools and the students involved.

Students can save money and stay closer to home by earning an associate’s degree at a community college before transferring to a four-year university. Colleges can boost enrollment without having to pay for new buildings and dorms. And some universities, like Rowan, Kean University, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Felician University, are even awarding degrees to students who take university classes taught at their partner community colleges.

These models are viewed as so successful that at the end of the month, Passaic and Union county colleges are petitioning a state higher education advisory board for permission to launch their own four-year degree programs.

As noted, the cost of college has become a crisis. Student loans have surpassed credit cards as America’s number one source of debt, and the average New Jersey university student graduates owing almost $30,000.

That’s not surprising, given the numbers. The most expensive private institution in New Jersey, Stevens Institute of Technology, charges $47,000 for one year of undergraduate tuition and fees. In-state undergraduate tuition and fees at Rutgers University and Stockton University, for example, average $13,000 — bringing the cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree to more than $50,000.

“The traditional model is, ‘Suck it up and deal with it,’” Oxholm explained. “That was good for a time in society when everything was fairly predictable but now one-size-fits-all doesn’t really address the needs of the people seeking the education.”

The new partnerships between four-year schools and county colleges are providing an answer, and they offer more than a glimpse of in higher education in New Jersey and the rest of the country.

Consider this scenario: Instead of enrolling at a state school for four years, a student pays an average of $4,600 per year in full-time tuition and fees to attend a two-year community college in her home county. During the student’s second term he or she consults with an advisor from their four-year school of choice (at the community college) and taps into the university library system and buys discounted tickets for sporting events.

Here’s the kicker: At the end of two years — if the student makes the grade — he or she will be admitted into the university, possibly paying reduced tuition as they turn the associate degree into a bachelor’s — possibly saving tens of thousands of dollars.

Consider one more number: Thirty-nine percent of students who graduated from a four-year program in New Jersey last year had taken at least one community college course.

Articulation agreements

New Jersey legislators put the state on a progressive trajectory back in 2007 when they passed the “Lampitt Law” that modified convention articulation agreements. Typically, an articulation, or “transfer,” agreement exists between two- and four-year colleges (usually fairly close to one another). It guarantees that the four-year-college accepts the credits earned at partner two-year institutions. Sometimes, the admissions process is waived for students who meet certain requirements.

The Lampitt Law, however, requires all public state schools to matriculate as a junior any accepted associate’s degree holder from the state’s 19 county colleges. A student who earned an associate degree in hospitality and tourism at Bergen Community College can start her junior year at any in-state baccalaureate program that accepts her.

Matriculation is not pro forma, though. The four-year school retains the right to review all applicants before accepting them, to ensure they can handle the coursework.

Special partnerships

But transfer agreements are just the beginning. A majority of the state’s public two- and four-year schools have begun to enter into so-called special partnerships, as have some of New Jersey’s private institutions like Fairleigh Dickinson, Felician, and Drew University.

What makes these partnerships “special” is that they’re typically between two specific schools and they often involve a specific major or course of study. To be clear, many standard articulation agreements simply ensure that a four-year school will accept the transfer credits of a two-year institution.

Some partnerships even cross state lines. Widener University, in Chester, PA, entered into a special partnership with Camden County College when it guaranteed admission to its B.S. in business management to CCC students who met criteria for grades (no grade lower than C) and GPA (no lower than 2.0)

Two years ago, CCC made a “groundbreaking” deal with Rutgers-Camden. It allows a CCC student to automatically transfer to RUC after receiving an associate degree; a first-year student from South Jersey who doesn’t get initially accepted to Rutgers-Camden can automatically transfer in for junior year as long as the student associate degree with a 2.0 GPA or above from CCC.

Both Middlesex and Mercer county colleges offer a large number of special partnerships, thanks in part to their central locations. Middlesex, for example, has a deal in place with Kean that affects nursing students. Because Middlesex offers nursing courses beyond the associate degree nursing students can transfer 88 credits (an associate degree require 60), leaving them just 37 credits short of a 125-credit B.S. degree from Kean.

Rowan, in Gloucester County, is taking its special partnerships to another level. Acknowledging that it has spare capacity in its 300- and 400-level classes, the school has actually renamed Gloucester County College and Burlington County College as Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC) and Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC). Still, only about 20 percent of community college students will directly participate in the Rowan program and the schools ostensibly remain independent.

Rowan also offers students an option common with special partnerships called “reverse transfers.” Students who drop out after starting at Rowan University as freshmen can apply their accumulated credits to an associate degree from Rowan College.

Degree completion

With Wednesday’s announcement, Rowan introduced a new-for-New Jersey variation on a partnership called a degree completion program.

Degree completions bring the baccalaureate degree to students where they are. Starting this fall, Rowan University will offer a “3+1” program that lets Rowan College students pay just $25,000 all told for a bachelor’s degree by spending junior year on the community college campus while taking the coursework – taught by university faculty — needed for the degree. They’ll pay county college tuition for three years instead of two.

Further, starting next week, the university will offer a Bachelor of General Studies at RCBC in Mount Laurel. And beginning this term, RU’s nursing program is located on the RCGC campus, and not on the Glassboro campus. In the fall of 2017, RU faculty will begin teaching engineering and computer science degree completion programs on the Mt. Laurel campus. The university offers a 15 percent discount on these “off-site” courses, as well as those taken online.

Advocates say degree completions prevent duplication of programming, tailors undergraduate — and sometimes graduate — degrees to the needs of the local employer base, and help universities expand their reach without spending too much money on infrastructure.

“The more students we have the more classrooms, beds, and space we have to have. Building buildings is really expensive,” said Oxholm.

Universities with little physical room to grow particularly value these opportunities. Most of the time, they use community college classrooms that would normally remain empty at night. Sometimes they pay rent, sometimes they pay a percentage of tuition, Some 120 Rutgers-Camden students currently take classes at CCC’s main Blackwood campus, where the president said, “We have free parking and about 300 acres to grow.”

Farther north, Kean has jumped across several counties to establish Kean Ocean, a four-year degree-granting program administered in a new building at Ocean County College whose construction costs were split evenly between the two institutions. Not only does Kean Ocean provide what its administrators say is the most affordable four-year college education in South Jersey, it also establishes the only bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs in a county where the closest two universities lie far away from the community college in Tom’s River. Plus, it allows Kean, located in Union, to spread out.

“We’re very landlocked,” says Stephen Kubow, acting associate vice president of Kean. “They have land and parking and it’s allowed us to increase enrollments without taxing our physical space.”

What’s more, Kubow estimates Kean Ocean generates an annual $5 million to 7 million for the university above cost, and, true to the statewide model, its students are performing better at their transfer schools than the other students.