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“I don’t understand, for the life of me, why more four-year institutions are not partnering with community colleges,” said Rowan University President Ali A. Houshmand, Ph.D.

Maybe, it’s because breaking tradition requires a lot of work, trust and new ways of thinking.  

A bold idea

The pandemic has only intensified enrollment declines, further demonstrating the need for institutions of higher education to think strategically and plan for the future in order to survive. Rowan University is setting the example through hard-won partnerships with two community colleges, giving students more pathways toward a bachelor’s degree at a significant cost savings. 

Three separate institutions—and the singular decision to share Rowan’s name—break down the barriers between the traditional four-year institution and the county or community college. By working together, they are forging new opportunities for students, particularly those who are from traditionally underserved communities or the first in their families to pursue a degree.

The relationships took time to develop. 

About a decade ago, Rowan University and seven nearby county colleges created a doctoral program in educational leadership, offered online and in a hybrid format. Rowan hired county college presidents and provosts as adjunct faculty; in return, the county colleges sent interested middle managers to enroll in the program. 

Inspired by those results, Houshmand sensed the timing was right for a bold idea that would upend convention. With their working relationships established, Houshmand invited the presidents to a summit and proposed a new partnership, one that would share Rowan’s name and reputation with partnered colleges. Even so, each entity would retain their independence with their own funding sources and oversight.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Houshmand had a reputation for making big changes. Though they struggled with declining enrollment trends, community colleges worried about losing their identities and control over programming. Ultimately, two saw the benefits of partnering with a fast-growing, four-year institution and agreed to the arrangement. 

Planning committees at all levels met. Faculty from the University and the two colleges worked closely together to align the curriculum to ensure a truly seamless transfer of credits into students’ chosen programs of study at the university level, making every class count. And, new academic programs were created.

The partnerships have created a steady stream of transfer students to the University, more space to expand University programming and lower costs for students. 

“We are giving opportunities for more students, and we can grow enrollment without having to build a new building,” Houshmand said. One degree pathway keeps a percentage of the University student body enrolled in classes at nearby county colleges. 

Today, Rowan College of South Jersey and Rowan College at Burlington County offer three new pathways toward a bachelor’s degree:

  • Rowan’s “3+1” program—New Jersey’s first—enables students to spend three years at affiliated community colleges as they complete coursework for their bachelor’s degree in select majors. Junior courses are taught by Rowan University-approved county college faculty, using exactly the same curriculum offered at the University. Senior classes are taught by University faculty, either online or at affiliated campuses. There are 28 options ranging from psychology to surveying engineering, with the cost ranging between $25,000 to $30,000 for a bachelor’s degree, depending on the program. 
  • Rowan Partnerships Online gives first-year students at Rowan College of South Jersey access to bachelor’s degrees taught fully online. 
  • Rowan Choice allows community college students to live on the University campus while earning up to 60 credits at the community college. 

Historic partnership

After announcing its partnership with Rowan University, enrollment at Gloucester County’s community college increased by 6 percent in 2014, a year when most community colleges in New Jersey saw enrollment slide. With more flexible, affordable options available, the campus has seen an influx of part-time students.  

The University and then-Burlington County College formed a similar partnership in 2015. After announcing the new “3+1” program in 2016, Rowan College of Burlington County saw a 4 percent increase in total enrollment.

The N.J. College Affordability Study Commission highlighted Rowan’s innovative “3+1” program in its 2016 report to the New Jersey Legislature. 

“This type of program design takes advantage of the best that county colleges and senior institutions of higher education have to offer, while minimizing the cost impact on students and their families,” the commission said. 

In 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy approved legislation to standardize the program statewide, a move endorsed by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. 

Houshmand believes universities and community colleges must partner together, not just to survive, but to flourish. 

“Affordability is critical,” Houshmand said. “As a state institution, we have the obligation to provide access, affordability and a quality education to everybody.”