Read this op-ed as it originally appeared Oct. 29, 2020 on nj.com.
By Frederick Keating, Michael Dicken and Dina Rossi
Higher education, county vocational-technical schools and businesses are “stacking the deck” in Gloucester and Cumberland counties thanks to an alliance intended to address college affordability while meeting employment demands in the local job market.
For two years, Rowan College of South Jersey (a merger of the former Gloucester County College and Cumberland County College) has served as the central hub connecting high school students from the Gloucester County Institute of Technology and the Cumberland County Technical Education Center to Rowan College, as well as to four-year Rowan University.
The Rowan Work & Learn Consortium was created to better prepare students for success in high-demand positions. This customized approach launches a career pathway from high school, to college, to employment. Students enter programs developed in conjunction with workforce and industry leaders that address the seven highest areas of labor demand in New Jersey.
The consortium targets the areas of need within the region while providing students the ability to gain work experience and industry credentials and generate income along the way. Rowan Work & Learn is the first packaged consortium among county vocational-technical schools, a two-year college and a four-year university in New Jersey. High school students interested in key regional industries such as energy, construction, health care, finance and hospitality can get a head start on post-secondary education and employment.
This makes our high school students more marketable and provides equitable opportunities to level the playing field. Seamless pathways linking credit and non-credit programs, work-based learning /apprenticeships and prior learning assessment serve to strengthen and speed students’ progress into the workforce.
While the Rowan Work & Learn Consortium is currently focused on Gloucester and Cumberland counties, state legislation signed in January by Gov. Phil Murphy, and sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, aims to encourage expansion of these partnerships throughout the state.
During times of rapid social, economic and technological change — now magnified by the pandemic — having affordable educational pathways that respond to the needs of students and employers is vital to our state’s economic recovery.
In August, the presidents of New Jersey’s 18 community colleges and the superintendents of the state’s 21 county vocational-technical high schools pledged to work together to expand collaboration and forge new career pathways. The New Jersey Council of County Colleges and the New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools have composed a white paper making four priority recommendations to guide our schools and colleges in this effort.
County colleges — with the support of county vocational-technical schools, four-year institutions and key employers — will launch Pathway and Skills Collaboratives in health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and technology to map and align education and training programs with the needs of the labor market.
County colleges and vocational-technical schools are also working together to identify fair and viable dual-credit models between the county institutions that enable more students to begin earning college credits during high school.
Thousands of New Jersey high school students already participate in dual credit programs at their community colleges, with some earning enough credits for an associate degree. This year, 161 vocational students graduated high school with their associate degrees, jump-starting their careers and saving families thousands of dollars.
We hope expanding these early on-ramps to college will improve student success, increase college affordability and create opportunities for graduates to quickly move into the workforce.
Gloucester and Cumberland counties are leading the way by bringing educators and employers together. We hope our collaboration can become a model for New Jersey to address the urgent challenges of restarting the economy, closing critical skill gaps, and expanding education and career opportunities for residents seeking a better future.
Frederick Keating is the president of Rowan College of South Jersey. Michael Dicken the superintendent of Gloucester County Institute of Technology. Dina Rossi is superintendent of Cumberland County Technical Education Center.