Preston, new president at Mercer CCC, talks about enrollment, costs — and big-picture role community colleges play

As Deborah Preston gets ready to begin her first school year as president of Mercer County Community College, she does so with the knowledge that enrollment at the school — as it seemingly is everywhere — is down.

The usual reasons are being offered everywhere: everything from costs (despite the recent loan forgiveness) to shrinking population to inflation to the pandemic.

Preston isn’t about excuses or even explanations. She’s about finding solutions.

“Some aspects of this decline can’t be changed because they are the result of shrinking demographics and population shifts, but other causes of the decline can and should be addressed,” she told ROI-NJ. “For example, students who are burned out from COVID-19 need mental health support at college; students who are working low-skill jobs for record-high pay rates should be encouraged to think about combining jobs with part-time schooling for their long-term financial well-being.

“We also, as a sector, need to do a better job of serving ‘adult’ students who want to finish their degrees or earn add-on credentials.”

And, Preston said, the community colleges need to do a better job promoting their fees, which are far lower than four-year schools.

“Unfortunately, many students believe that they can’t afford college because they don’t realize how much less expensive community college can be, and they don’t always know about financial aid that is available,” she said.

“There are other factors, including a healthy job market, increased competition from four-year colleges and universities, and general COVID malaise. Through marketing efforts, we are focusing on available financial aid opportunities at MCCC. And we hope potential students will take action and reach out to us.”

It’s too soon to release enrollment figures for the fall. Community college enrollment is steady until the first day of the term — and even after. The issue, however, is not going away.

Finding a solution will be good for Mercer County Community College and the 73 other institutions of higher education in the state. This is a statewide — and nationwide — issue.

More than that, Preston said, it is a societal issue.

“The long-term consequences of low enrollment are not necessarily dire for community colleges if we restructure our organizations to adjust to smaller student populations,” she said. “However, the consequences to individual quality of life and to our society could be devastating if we don’t prioritize an educated citizenry as a means to collective well-being.”

Preston, who was named the school’s seventh president in April, has three decades of experience in the sector. She most recently served as provost and vice president of academic affairs at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg. She is eager to get the school year going.

Here’s a look at a recent conversation with ROI-NJ, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Higher education is about getting a degree — and getting prepared for the workforce. How, specifically, is Mercer working with business community to impact the curriculum of its programs?

Deborah Preston: All of our Career & Technical Education programs have advisory commissions that are comprised of industry leaders, alumni and community leaders. These programs seek engagement from the business community to ensure that the faculty are informed of the industry needs in order to adjust the curriculum.

In some cases, we work directly with the industry leaders to make modifications to curriculum or build customized training programs and even credit-bearing certificates to meet the needs of the industry.

Examples of industry collaborations include:

  • Industry input into the CT/MRI program, the medical lab technician program and the physical therapy assistant program;
  • Hospital input into patient care skills taught in our nursing program;
  • The Automotive Advisory Commission is advising our auto program on topics from marketing to accreditation to electric vehicles;
  • The Mercer County Workforce Development Advanced Manufacturing Board brings together MCCC, (Mercer County Technical Schools), the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program and local industry to discuss student skills, program marketing, apprenticeships and Mercer County job fairs;
  • MCCC engages with Trenton Water Works, where we developed and supported a curriculum that aligned with their existing needs and succession planning;
  • MCCC recently submitted a proposal to Fermenich, a local manufacturing company, for a CPIM (Certified in Production and Inventory Management) certification in supply chain management.

The role of community college

We asked Deborah Preston , the new president of Mercer County Community College and a veteran of the sector, to tell us one thing that those who aren’t familiar with MCCC or community colleges in general need to know about the role they play in society and in economic development.

“Ten or 15 years ago, the Lumina Foundation sponsored some ads about the importance of community college in which people were unable to get certain basic services (first responder services, for example) because their local community colleges had been defunded. Community colleges, including MCCC, educate nurses, auto mechanics, early childhood caregiver, and restaurateurs, as well as teachers, social workers, doctors, scientists, actors and many other professionals who would never make it to white-collar jobs without the affordability and convenience of community college.

“In 2021, the labor market analytics firm EMSI concluded that MCCC contributed $231 million in income to the county’s economy and that county taxpayers received an annual return rate of 9% on county funding invested in the college. In addition, the student rate of return on their tuition investment was 14.1% annually. These results are pretty typical of community college impact on their economic environments. And the more that counties invest, typically the better the return.”

ROI: Where else would you like to grow these partnerships?

DP: My team and I are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities to build programs that respond to new technology and new trends; examples include data analytics, cybersecurity, electric vehicle repair, clean room technology and others.

One of my goals as the new president is to expand those relationships in the community.

ROI: We know these partnerships can be with more than just business sectors. How specifically is Mercer working with area vo-tech schools?

DP: We have several dual enrollment agreements with various sites in the MCTS system, including dual enrollment courses for their Career Prep program (aviation, engineering, information technology) and their three academies: Health Science, Culinary and STEM.

We also have academic leaders who serve on their advisory committees, we share space on both of our campuses (automotive), and we have areas where our curricula have been designed to work directly with one another.

The latest MCTS STEM/MCCC agreement reflects a more aligned MCCC Advanced Manufacturing curriculum into the STEM Academy curriculum. Trenton High School has also been a focus for vocational-technical training, including programs in advanced manufacturing and potential enrollment in hospitality, cybersecurity and the performing arts.

In addition to our many articulation agreements, MCTS has provided written support for MCCC grant applications, including recent NSF grants, as well as the Securing Our Children’s Bond Act.

ROI: Last question: How is life at community college today far different than it was even five years ago — let alone 25 years ago?

DP: One really only has to go back only three years, pre-pandemic, to see significant changes in life at community colleges. We are now doing a much better job of leveraging technology to make enrollment, registration, tutoring, testing, advising and other services much more convenient to students. We’ve also diversified our instructional modalities by offering more online, more hybrid and more remote synchronous options.

Today’s community college students generally have to come to campus only when they want to or when a hands-on program requires a physical presence. The downside is that we have to work harder to make sure students are engaged and that they have opportunities for social interaction and fun on campus.

Having been in community college education for over 25 years myself, I can honestly say that things have changed more in the last three years than they did in the previous 22. The gradual implementation of new technologies has certainly been a change, and we have incrementally done a better job of focusing on student retention and success, but higher education has never been known for rapid change.