RCGC President Discusses Pending Merger with Cumberland County College

By: Ahmad Graves-El

Cumberland County College, the state’s first county college, joins with Rowan College at Gloucester County, on the promise of improved, more affordable education.

For the last couple of years, there has been an abundance of talk, rumor, and innuendo regarding a potential merger between Cumberland County College (CCC) and Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC). 

Well, it appears the time is nigh. On Friday, June 28th, CCC is holding a historic event that will “honor its past and celebrate its future” as Cumberland County College prepares to enter into a new era by combining with RCGC in what is known as a jointure. 

If the jointure is approved by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which will be making its decision on the matter on June 27th (at this point, it appears to be a mere formality), the two community colleges will become one and will be called Rowan College of South Jersey. 

The merger would be a monumental event as it would be the first time in New Jersey history that two community colleges from two different counties united to form one entirely new entity. 

According to CCC, if the merger is approved, “the Cumberland County College Board of Trustees will conduct a special meeting and vote to officially close Cumberland County College,” at the celebration being held on June 28th.

Special guest speakers at this event include Congressman Jeff Van Drew, Senator Steve Sweeney, NJ Secretary of Higher Education Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis, and Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella. 

One of the speakers, Dr. Frederick Keating, president of RCGC, recently met with Follow Local News to discuss the pending merger.  

Follow Local News: Why is Cumberland County College merging with Rowan College at Gloucester County? 

Dr. Frederick Keating: This was a conversation that began, governmentally, two years ago, maybe a little longer. The idea was the changing landscape of county colleges in New Jersey, there are 19. The entire sector, unfortunately, is somewhat shrinking with the demographics. The number of students that are graduating in the Northeast corridor [has] … flattened out or even [has] gone on a little bit of a shrinkage. 

Cumberland and Gloucester have both been in the same situation with regard to the potential loss of population. Gloucester, five years ago, looking at those statistics and trying to find a way to build the institution rather than wait for it to be challenged, went to Rowan University as a partner. Now remember, Rowan University is in Gloucester County, so it was an easier conversation. [We] approached them with the idea of becoming a Premier Partnership. We use that … and we define it by a Memorandum of Agreement, which we’re negotiating with them now with Cumberland being inserted into the agreement, with the idea that, to your question, that we would have programs that we can offer to our students that no other institution could offer because we would have the strength and the backing of a research University in our backyard. 

We … felt that if we could get the lift of having the Premier Partnership of a four-year school where most of our students, and Cumberland students do go to geographically, and affordability-wise … that that would be the target to have that completion—the bachelor’s degree. 

Back to your question. We went to Rowan to take on the name, the brand, the perception, but more importantly underneath of it from a student perspective, we got the relationship on transfer, scholarship money [and] now we have what’s called the 3+1 degree, which is three years at the county college, one year at the University. So, if you don’t need [to live on campus] and you commute … that’s a $27,000 voucher’s degree from Rowan University. In today’s market of affordability for our families and our students, that seems to be the gift that keeps giving. 

How much does it cost to go to Rowan if you were to go there all four years? 

A hundred thousand, if you live there. That’s room, board, tuition, all that. Rowan has worked with us and has been a fabulous partner. So, you look at what did you get out of Rowan? We got transfer, scholarship, 3+1, Rowan’s Choice. We have Rowan Work and Learn, which is … more of the stackable credential for labor certificates and degrees. And we also now have Rowan Head Start, which we’re doing with every high school. I’ve met with Vineland, Millville, Bridgeton, Cumberland Regional, and the Vo-Tech about having their students transfer and take courses in what we now call Rowan College Head Start, starting in July. [This] means you can get college credit for a lesser dollar, which they do at Cumberland now, but not as aggressively … as we do it with the University. So, you could actually get our credit that’ll be a guaranteed transfer to Rowan and you can take [classes] at the Cumberland [Campus] or online. Lastly, we have GPA acceptance. Our students now collectively, Cumberland and Gloucester, will not have to go through the admissions department. We go direct admission. You’re admitted into Rowan University the day you come to Cumberland now, and Gloucester. You have to earn your way in by your grade point average.

What does the GPA have to be? 

It varies by every department. Engineering, [you’d have to earn] around a 3.6 or 3.7 to a baseline of 2.0. They have a one-up, I think, on getting into an exclusive institution that’s geographical and affordable…. So where’s the benefit for [CCC], governmentally? Operational cost. You can streamline your payroll, you can unify your faculty, share faculty. You can operate cost of benefit of economy … scale, purchasing, property management. It’s a shared service agreement. Really, it’s a jointure with a shared service model. Students get their benefit, and the institution will get its benefits. 

Whose idea was it for these schools to merge? 

It was a combination of the county (CC) freeholder board and the college (CCC) board of trustees. Who led the parade? I attended one meeting about a year and a half ago to explore the concept with the board of trustees of Cumberland County College. It was attended by the educational liaison and freeholder director. So, it was a joint effort to say, we’re in trouble, and they are… 

So they came and asked for help? 

It wasn’t help. People come at me now with this idea—is this a merger, is this an acquisition? This is a merged relationship. Both institutions are OK. If you don’t go out and get a Premier Partner—to me, that’s survival. You want your institution to survive? [You’ve] got to get out of the comfort box and give opportunity to people. Some people in Cumberland say we have hopes for this, that this might bring more opportunity for our kids to stay here and go to school here and maybe stay and live in this community.

Cumberland lost a thousand students in five years. A thousand. Can you keep that up? You lose anymore … then you’re going to close. So, do you do it while you’re healthy? And you go into a … partnership to share the operational costs, enhance the brand, expand the opportunity and make it affordable to the families? Tell me where we went wrong.  

We have a hospital network, Inspira, who’s partnered with us now. Coming right down the corridor with nursing, LPN, respiratory therapy. We’re going to do dental at Cumberland over at the Vo-Tech where they built [a] lab. Eds and Meds. 

You touched on this briefly earlier, but can you specifically share with our readers the benefits of the impending merger between CCC and RCGC for the students of both campuses? 

The student gets access. They get affordability. They have a residential opportunity, if they want it. You get a guided pathway with stackable credentials. You get a comprehensive transfer option to the University. You get quality of instruction. We have three faculty centers now, the University and two colleges all merged into one … you have a lot of brain power in there. You have continuity of the student model. Student-centered culture, which is a focus on the kid. Experiential learning with internships and Premier Partnership benefits with Rowan University. 

So, there’s no real change for RCGC students?  

Well, yes and no. Basically, nothing changes here, except we would have an expansion of programs down in Cumberland that we don’t have here. 

(According to Dr. Keating, after July 1, if the impending merger is approved, students on both campuses will pay $152 per credit established by a one county rate instead of the usual in-county and out-of-county rates.)

Some in the Cumberland County community feel uneasy about this merger. In many people’s minds, CCC has been a viable institution for the majority of its 53-year history. How do you alleviate the fears of those who think this is not merely a merger, but in essence is a takeover? 

There’s a fear factor. The idea of human behavior and the culture and systemic issue of change … scares everyone. I respect it and it’s understandable. And I’ve said, even here, that I would probably be feeling the same way if it was a reverse role. But I have to be the messenger and what I have to get people to understand is—tell me what you’re afraid of? 

There’s more to fear from not doing it … Because if you look at the demographics, if you look at the economics, if you look at the revenue loss to Cumberland County College … you’re in this conversation because you see a potential of being unhealthy. And if you want to avoid it, you can only do one thing—grow your institution, stabilize your institution, expand your institution, and increase your enrollment. And you don’t do that by sitting still and plug and play. 

How will the merger affect professors, advisors, and other employees at both colleges? 

For the initial time … we expanded the labor agreements. We all have one more year on contract. Now, it’s a contract for the association. The individual gets a contract and we told Cumberland … we’re going into next year at complete hold harmless status quo. Every person employed at that college is employed next year. Everyone. 

So, what about the next year after that? 

Two things we did and I wanted to make sure I led this as president of this college, is the idea we extended the contract agreement for two years to give it stability and labor stability [so] we don’t get distracted by a labor fight. Secondly, we kept everybody, in the first year, on a hold harmless consideration, which is not what they experienced the year before. 

We need people. You don’t build a college around laying people off. You don’t tell the public you’re getting a good product if you show them you’re shrinking and atrophying to death. You build an institution around vibrancy and bringing people in. The best-case scenario that I have in my mind, that I’m going on a tape recorder with, stabilization of everything. My goal is one thing and one thing only—stabilize the patient and work together regionally to start to turn the tide and to build it back up to the enrollment patterns of the past. 

Can we get there? I don’t know because we’re chasing fewer kids. The demographics are against us. So, you either join the battle or become a victim of it. I think Cumberland was wise to say to Gloucester, let’s go together in this thing. Let’s expand our base. Look at the geography, the geography’s beautiful. We’re going to have a Premier Partner in medicine, we’re going to have a Premier Partner in education—Inspira Health, Rowan University—Eds and Meds. 

What we did to the labor stability—there’s a two-year allowance in the statute. They’re going to lose their tenure on June 28th. They know it, the faculty, because the institution [will no longer exist pending approval of the merger]. The tenure is to the institution. Regaining tenure is five years in New Jersey. There’s a fast track in the statute that you can regain it in two [years] if the board will approve it.

What board? 

The new board, the jointure board (The new board would consist of eight RCGC members and five CCC members.). We have now the posture and the assurance …. I can’t speak for them because I don’t vote, that they will accept the recommendation of the president in a preliminary fashion of understanding in the MOU that the recommendation will be made in two years to give them a regaining of tenure. And in the meantime, their seniority continues to count. So, if you said … I’m out of here, I’m going to teach at [another college], you got five years to get it back. If you say no, I’ll hang on and stay with this institution and help build it, you get it back in two and you never lost seniority. It’s a pill to swallow … but, it’s a smaller pill.

I think, in time, and I hope during my time and duration of this relationship, that we will turn that fear into opportunity. [The fear] will dissipate over time and only can dissipate by earning trust [and seeing positive results]. 

When it comes to athletics, these two schools are longtime adversaries. I can equate the battles between RCGC and CCC, in all sports, to the Eagles vs. the Cowboys, Yankees vs. the Red Sox, and in Cumberland County, Vineland vs. Millville. What’s going to happen to the highly anticipated contests between these two rivals? 

The good news is that we petitioned the National Junior College Athletic Association, and Region XIX, and the Garden State Athletic Conference and we got a green light that we can have two athletic directors, two athletic programs, on two different campus sites. It behooves them to keep … these programs viable and alive. In fact, I have committed to the athletic director at Cumberland—Keith Gorman—that we will also revive programs. I’ve had meetings with Keith about getting more programs and more students because softball was in jeopardy. Women’s soccer, the women’s sports are in trouble. We were part of the vote and part of the push in this relationship to now get three-year eligibility. We got it. The council approved it for our region … starting, I think, next year, with the freshman entry. I think it’ll help with overall sports programming to enhance participation, which is what we need. I’m an advocate. And the idea is what we’re going to do is have a President’s Cup and we may play that game between these two Rowan Colleges at Rowan University on the bigger field, make it a bigger event … I’d like to do it for every sport.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Please tell your readers and the people at Cumberland, it’s OK. We’re going to be alright. I believe this is what’s best for those people in Cumberland and here in Gloucester. These people need this. They need a chance to get an education without going broke … and … New Jersey needs it because we can’t afford to have more kids going to another state and never coming back. I believe in these people and these kids. I wouldn’t have volunteered for this mission, that I would try to be the one to lead this conversation. I know it’s fraught with fear and anxiety. I know it [and] respect it. 

I respect how you feel, and eventually you’re going to have to figure out if you want to trust [me].