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Why four-year colleges are fuming at N.J. community college

“We’re now competing,” the community college president said.

At Rowan College at Burlington County, red banners promoting RCBC are joined by gold banners promoting Rowan University.
At Rowan College at Burlington County, red banners promoting RCBC are joined by gold banners promoting Rowan University.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Angering four-year college presidents and administrators across the region, the community college in Burlington County has moved to limit those schools' on-campus outreach to students interested in pursuing a bachelor's degree.

Rowan College at Burlington County this month emailed four-year colleges and universities: "The only colleges permitted to advertise, display their logos or distribute collateral on common grounds of Rowan College at Burlington County … are [RCBC] and Rowan University."

A week later, another email told schools — including Temple, Rutgers, and Stockton — that RCBC "will not be hosting a fall transfer fair, Instant Decision Days or information tables."

The changes are designed to maximize the school's promotion of its new "3+1" program with Rowan University, which allows students to remain on the community college campus and receive a Rowan University bachelor's degree after completing the four-year program.

"We're now competing. It doesn't make sense to do transfer fairs," said Paul Drayton, the president of RCBC. "We have on-site partners who brand their colleges that we're now competing with. Does it make sense to continue to do that?"

The 3+1 partnership with Rowan University, Drayton said, provides a new option for students.

"But absolutely," he said, "it changes the relationships that we have with those four-year institutions because we're now saying that we want to keep those students here."

Privately, presidents and top administrators at four-year schools fume at what they see as moves to limit access to students. For the four-year schools, increased obstacles to student outreach are a serious concern in part because of financial worries as they compete for a shrinking student pool. Transfer students are an important enrollment source for many.

"We have a really strong relationship with RCBC. In fact, they're our only New Jersey community college where we have a guaranteed admissions agreement," said Karin W. Mormando, Temple University's undergraduate admissions head. "We just have a longstanding history of being responsive to their students, so I was certainly disappointed to not have the opportunity to be on their campus."

Temple will still be an option for students, she said, but canceling college transfer fairs and removing promotional materials makes it more difficult for those students.

"There's something to be said for being able to make on-campus connections. It certainly makes it easier for the student who is running from class to work to commuting," said Mormando, who attended the community college — known until last year as Burlington County College — before transferring to Rutgers-Camden.

Drayton noted that four-year schools will continue to have materials at the school's transfer office and said digital marketing today makes on-campus outreach less important than before.

"I'm making them work a little bit harder," he said.

"We were surprised to learn of the ban, but are confident that Rowan College at Burlington County will change this new practice," said Harvey Kesselman, the president of Stockton University.

James O'Hara, who heads enrollment at Rider University, said it was "a surprise and disappointing" to learn of RCBC's changes.

"This new decision by Burlington's leadership limits opportunities for its students," O'Hara said in a statement. "Rider is working with other colleges and universities in the state to see how we can get Burlington to reconsider this policy."

Drayton readily admitted that the decisions are fueled in part by financial concerns.

"Is this a way for us to, first of all, provide access, provide an affordable quality education, but also for us to increase our enrollment, increase our revenue? Absolutely. Absolutely," Drayton said. "I'm not going to hide from that for one second, and that is part of it."

Drayton describes his decision to minimize other schools' on-campus presence as "the logical extension of what we're doing" with Rowan University.

But half an hour away, a sister community college is undergoing the same transformations and entering the same partnerships — without making the moves that have angered four-year colleges.

Rowan College at Gloucester County entered into a partnership with Rowan University a year earlier. Both schools earlier this year announced 3+1 programs, with courses to begin in 2017.

The Gloucester County school continues to hold transfer fairs and welcome four-year schools onto its campus.

"We do hold out a premier relationship. … But it is just that, a premier relationship, not an exclusive one. I'm not going to say that I can agree with that kind of approach," said Frederick Keating, the president of RCGC.

Keating said the merits of the 3+1 program will be clear when compared with other programs.

"We don't see any jeopardy, we don't see any risk, we don't see any kind of reason to be more restrictive in promoting opportunity," he said. "We're here for [students], so you put everything out, we give them everything we can give them. They will make the choice."

Drayton said RCBC's decisions were his; a Rowan University spokesman confirmed that the university played no part.

Drayton accused four-year schools of wanting to maintain a status quo despite a shifting higher education landscape.

"It's changed because those same colleges are too expensive. They brought this upon themselves, right? So they, during the worst economic recession in modern history, increased tuition … and so parents and students and others are talking about this.

"It is a crisis! But many of them — and you can quote me on this — I don't believe really understand how much of a crisis it is," he said.

Drayton also challenged the four-year schools: If they don't hold transfer fairs and help students leave, why should he?

The four-year colleges and universities say RCBC, which last year enrolled about 8,800 students, is limiting access for its students. They questioned the wisdom of that decision.

"South Jersey families and employers need more, not fewer, routes to the careers offered by a bachelor's degree," Mike Sepanic, a spokesman for Rutgers-Camden, said in a statement.

The College of New Jersey counts RCBC as one of its top five feeder schools. Tom Beaver, a TCNJ spokesman, said the school was concerned about the effect of RCBC's moves.

"How can TCNJ and other four-year colleges provide prospective transfer students with information about all of the options available to them," Beaver said in a statement, "if we're prohibited from any marketing and outreach activities on campus?"