The waiting game: County College of Morris confident it will have surge in enrollment — and that it won’t find out true numbers until the fall

Anthony Iacono knows a great increase in students is coming to his campus. He just doesn’t know how many. And he knows he may not know until a few days or weeks before classes start in the fall.

But Iacono, the president of County College of Morris, said the school is ready.

“We’re looking at models right now that we show increases potentially of 10%, maybe 20%, which we can comfortably manage,” he told ROI-NJ.

The school, he said, has added more than 20 faculty members in the past three years. And Iacono said CCM has a pool of longtime part-time faculty that can increase their load.

“We’ve been building for increased capacity,” he said.

Community colleges traditionally see a big increase in enrollment during times of economic upheaval. This time, however, Iacono said a surge may be about more than just finances. He’s concerned about the potential fear factor that will come after dealing with a virus that has so many unknowns.

“I think a lot of students, and maybe even more so, their parents, are going to be nervous about sending their kids off to the dorms,” he said.

CCM’s biggest unknown is when students and parents will make these decisions.

Community colleges traditionally don’t learn their sizes until closer to Labor Day, Iacono said. Finances and fear certainly will add to that scenario. As will one more: Schools still need to see if they will be on virtual learning in the fall.

Iacono said CCM will be ready regardless of the situation. And he said the school will be ready for what he expects to be higher demand for specific workforce development programs.

The school’s new $11 million, 31,500-square-foot, state-of-the art Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Center is scheduled to open this fall.

“The part that makes us unique from some of the universities is that we have a full-blown comprehensive workforce development program,” he said. “This will be a big part of the recovery.

“When it’s time to rebuild the economy, the feds typically will get heavily invested with their local community colleges and tech schools as a way to rebuild things.”

ROI-NJ, in its continuing coverage of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on business in New Jersey, gave extra attention to higher education this week.

(See our stories on its impact at Rowan University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Monmouth University and Centenary University.)

Iacono talked with ROI-NJ earlier this week on Zoom. Here is a look at the interview, edited for content and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the overview. Every sector has been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. How has it impacted the County College of Morris?

File photo
Anthony Iacono of County College of Morris.

Anthony Iacono: One thing we have in common with any school, whether it’s K-12 or a four-year university, was that we had to move an entire college online in a very tiny amount of time. But we got there and it worked out pretty darn well. People often think that means all the classes, but all of the institutional systems and operations have to be moved online, as well. So, we’re literally running the campus remotely.

ROI: Let’s get back to enrollment: Is there any reason to think it may stay the same or even drop?

AI: We think that we’re going to see a substantial increase in enrollment, predominantly because individuals are becoming very concerned about their finances. We put them in a better place financially.

However, it’s also entirely possible — if the economic situation continues to deteriorate significantly — that it will scare people to just to simply say, ‘I’m just going to sit back and not do anything at all anywhere and hold out.’

ROI: We know how proud you are of the state-of-the art Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Center. Is there any reason to believe that opening will be delayed because of this crisis?

AI: We’re still on track to be opening this fall.

ROI: You are fortunate in that regard. Many colleges in the state have had to slow or stop projects because of financial concerns. They also are freezing salaries and are worried about potentially cutting jobs. It sounds as if you are in a different place financially. Talk about that and government aid?

AI: Naturally, we have to manage our finances very carefully, but we don’t have any freezes or anything at this point. We’re really watching summer enrollment. We’re watching fall. We know the amount that we’ll be receiving as part of the federal CARES Act. About half of that will go directly to students, and I think that will incentivize them, give them some options, that at the moment they might not think they have. So we’re waiting for details from the feds. We’d like to be able to distribute those dollars as quickly as possible, frankly.

ROI: This is good information. How are you going to get this to potential students and their parents?

AI: We’re getting ready to launch another marketing campaign that really addresses the issues. We’re aware a lot of people are going to want to choose to stay home. We want to let them know what their options are. And we do have great relationships with four-year universities, so students can transfer back to them when they’re ready, if that’s the choice they want to make.

ROI: Choices to make — there are a lot of them for students and their parents. And they’re not likely to make them anytime soon. We’re guessing that’s your biggest challenge right now?

AI: A lot of our students will wait until much closer to the start time to make a decision. This year, I fully predict we’re going to see that exacerbated.

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