Most Islanders who pursue higher education opportunities leave the Vineyard. Some move away permanently, some temporarily and some on a day-to-day-basis, commuting to the mainland for classes. The new president of Cape Cod Community College is making the Vineyard a priority in the institution’s plans to increase enrollment, which may enable a growing number of students to learn closer to home.

The first part of president Dr. John Cox’s Island outreach plan comes in the form of a nursing degree program, which was announced in January and is designed for students looking to advance their qualification from Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) to the Registered Nurse (RN) degree. The college evaluated interest in the program at information sessions they hosted on the Island just after the start of the new year.

While the college’s mission is to serve the higher education needs of the Cape and Islands, obstacles in the past have included the difficulty of transportation and a relative scarcity of interested students. With the nursing program, the college hopes to “build a cohort [of nursing students] that may lead to further expansion,” Mr. Cox said.

In an interview with the Gazette Monday morning, Mr. Cox and Susan Maddigan, dean of health sciences and social sciences at the college, spoke about the evolving mission and reach of the two-year college, one of 15 community colleges in the commonwealth.

Earlier that day they had met with the Vineyard’s Health Education Collaborative, which includes representatives from the hospital, the high school guidance department, the Visiting Nurse Association and Windemere, as well as Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss.

Mr. Cox took over as president of the college on July 1, 2012; he previously was vice president for finance, operations and government relations at Hartford Community College in Maryland and has a long career as an educator and administrator. He heard about the job while vacationing on the Cape with his family last year, and now makes his home in Falmouth with his wife and two school-aged daughters. His interest in enrolling greater numbers of Island students goes back to the beginning of his brief tenure, he said.

Since 2008, the college has seen “a gentle negative slope with enrollment,” and an increase in the number of part-time students, which now comprise two thirds of students enrolled, Mr. Cox said. “One of the challenges — and it’s not just for the Vineyard, it’s the Cape in genera — is that you have a very finite population, especially coming out of the K-12 arena.” He estimated that the elementary to high school-age population in the region has decreased by 25 per cent in recent years.

On Monday, the college announced the appointment of Oak Bluffs resident Tom Hallahan as outreach coordinator for the college. Mr. Hallahan, a professor of speech communications at Salem State University, will act as the point person for Vineyard students enrolled at the community college, providing “academic advising, Accuplacer assessment testing, and general information on financial aid, admissions, and workforce training,” according to the college press release. He has an office at the regional high school where he has already met with 20 prospective students.

Last fall, 49 Island students enrolled at the college. Eight students took classes during the January term, 57 during the spring term and 13 are enrolled for summer courses.

“If you look at all the colleges that Vineyard students attend, at some point more Vineyard students attend Cape Cod Community College than any other college,” Ms. Maddigan said.

The students vary in age, some enrolling directly out of high school, while others fit in courses later in their academic careers. Ms. Maddigan estimates that 18 students are currently enrolled in the nursing program, which Mr. Cox calls “a multi-year investment” that will move along at the students’ pace. After speaking with a steering committee of representatives from interested Island bodies, the college decided on an RN program to meet demand for qualified health professionals on the Island.

“Early on it became very clear that there was a need in serving the LPNs,” Mr. Cox said. The college is ironing out the details of a “pathway so that students can move along in their profession without having to deal with all of the logistics of establishing the satellite campus,” he said, adding:

“We have pulled the courses that will lead you to the RN and the hope is that over time, we will be able to grow more programs, more courses that will lead to more programs.”

Mr. Cox said that though a program may generate a lot of interest when first introduced, only steady enrollment throughout the years will ensure that it can continue.

“We need a critical mass of students in order to offer courses on a consistent basis,” Mr. Cox said. “The challenge is that unlike the other 14 community colleges that can pull [students] in from other areas, we are basically surrounded by water.”

The nursing program will host laboratory classes at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. For Vineyard students, this would reduce the commute time considerably, as well as their reliance on multiple modes of transportation. Classes will most likely be held at the high school.

The main campus of the college, long nicknamed Four Cs by the Sea, is located in West Barnstable, about a 45-minute drive from Woods Hole. Island student commuters struggle with transportation obstacles that include scheduling differences between the Steamship Authority ferries and the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority. The schedules are rarely in-sync, Mr. Cox and Ms. Maddigan said.

Sometimes students who are doing their clinical work at the Falmouth Hospital and need to be there by 7 a.m. have to ride the newspaper boat to the mainland, Ms. Maddigan said.

“These students, they find a way to make it work,” Ms. Maddigan said. “They really impress me.” While their resourcefulness is admirable, the college would like to ease the burden to ensure increased, consistent enrollment. “The more you work with the students, the more you see the obstacles,” she said.

The nursing coursework will follow a hybrid course model, consisting of both online and real time components. This summer, the college will offer algebra to students planning on enrolling in the nursing program. The course will help them prepare for chemistry in the fall. Developmental psychology will be offered through ACE MV (Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard) this summer to a small group of early childhood educators. The college is eyeing early childhood education as another possible avenue for curricular expansion.

The college has looked at the Vineyard hospital as a possible site for nursing training, but the intensive care unit there is unpredictable in terms of providing training opportunities on acute cases due to uneven volumes.

While Mr. Cox and Ms. Maddigan are cautious to predict the exact nature of the college’s long-term commitment and prefer to test the waters in a course-by-course basis, they do envision a continued presence on the Island. “We see ourselves involved with Martha’s Vineyard in the long-term,” Ms. Maddigan said.