Back to School in Your Backyard
Getting a bachelor’s degree – conveniently
By Erin Bell

For 26-year-old Emily Keifels, a bachelor’s degree was always in the plan – until life got in the way.

“My husband and I had our son, Jackson, when we were seniors in high school,” the Maple Shade mom says. “But it was important to both of us that we go to college and earn degrees.”

Keifels knew getting that degree wasn’t going to be easy with a new baby. In her final year of high school, she went to school full-time, worked part-time and took care of her son in-between. But when she saw the chance to pursue her bachelor’s degree at Burlington County College (BCC) as part of its partnership with Fairleigh Dickinson University, she jumped.

Keifels took night classes over five years and graduated in May 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in American history from Fairleigh Dickinson. Being able to commute to the Mount Laurel and Pemberton campuses so she could provide for her son, who was diagnosed with autism, was especially important.

Keifels is one of a growing number of non-traditional students who are capitalizing on the local programs offered by community colleges. It’s a national trend, and SJ colleges are riding the wave. The county colleges in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester have all partnered with four-year colleges and universities to offer students the ability to earn a bachelor’s degree on local campuses.

“We’re on the cutting edge of what higher education is moving toward nowadays,” says Michael Plagianakos, director of university relations at the recently renamed Rowan College at Gloucester County (formerly Gloucester County College). “We broke out of the traditional models, and it’s really exciting to be a part of that.”

“Students have been asking us for this for years,” says Margaret Hamilton, vice president for academic affairs at Camden County College, which has partnered with Rutgers-Camden and Rutgers-Newark to offer several bachelor’s programs. “They’ll say, ‘Can’t we stay here?’ Rutgers-Camden is in our county. And we’re a community college in the same county – we’re all a community. It makes sense for us to partner with Rutgers for these programs.”

For some, earning a degree on a quiet community campus is easier than the distractions of a traditional four-year school. “Students are very comfortable here,” explains Plagianakos. “This gives them the opportunity to stay within their comfort level and get the degree they want.”

And for others, earning a bachelor’s degree from a community college is a way to save a great deal of money. Rowan University, for instance, offers a 15-percent discount on tuition and fees to students earning their degree at Rowan College’s Sewell campus in Gloucester County. And many of the programs, such as BCC’s partnership with Rutgers-Camden, offer students annual transfer scholarships ranging from $500 to $2,000, provided they complete the coursework and maintain an adequate grade-point average.

The programs are a realistic option for working students, explains Plagianakos. “It takes the mystery out of college,” he says. “It has everything to do with accessibility and giving them the best chance to succeed in college.”

Rowan College hopes to draw more students looking for a bachelor’s degree that won’t break the bank. Currently, the school has partnerships with Fairleigh Dickinson and Wilmington universities, in addition to the partnership with Rowan.

“With the name change, it gives the perception that it’s somewhat elevated,” says Judith Atkinson, vice president of student services for Rowan College. “So it’s not just a community college. We’ve been around for 45 years. When students were making the choice to go to a four-year school, we were always the plan B. But now what we’re seeing, with the development of these partnerships, is that we may be plan A.”

Camden County College (CCC) President Raymond Yannuzzi says he is extremely happy that the programs allow non-traditional students to come back to the college and finish their degree.

“That’s what community colleges do for people,” he says. “There are many who stopped school after earning their associate’s degree, and now they can go on. This does open opportunities for people.”

At CCC, students can earn degrees from Rutgers-Camden in programs like liberal studies, business administration and psychology on the Blackwood campus. Nursing students can earn their bachelor of science degree from Rutgers School of Nursing without having to commute to the Newark or New Brunswick campuses. The William G. Rohrer Center in Cherry Hill also offers MBA courses, according to Yannuzzi.

“Business students could conceivably earn their MBA by taking their bachelor’s classes at the Blackwood campus and then move on to the Rohrer Center and earn their master’s degree,” he says.

And at Burlington County College, three schools – Wilmington, Fairleigh Dickinson and Rutgers-Camden – offer programs ranging from a bachelor of humanities to a master of education in school leadership. (BCC previously had a partnership with Drexel University as well, but it is being phased out and students will no longer be accepted into the program). Just as with Rowan College and CCC, faculty members from these universities teach classes at BCC’s campuses.

CCC’s Yannuzzi thinks the on-campus bachelor’s degree programs will help keep talent and jobs in SJ. “It really is increasing the chances for people in Southern New Jersey to get a higher education,” he says. “Start here, stay here.”

February 2015
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