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Back to the Drawing Board

by Jennifer L. Nelson
In this economy, area colleges and universities are putting the focus on adult learners and catering courses of study to their unique needs.

Despite hectic work schedules, the demands of raising a family, and a long list of financial responsibilities, more and more adults are returning to the classroom.

Whether it’s to finish their studies or pursue advanced degrees, residents are working to secure a better, more stable future for themselves, and South Jersey’s colleges and universities have responded. There are a host of career development resources, like degree and academic courses, certificate programs, financial assistance, flexible class schedules and more geared toward the non-traditional student who has made the choice to return to school.

At Rutgers University in Camden, for example, programs targeted toward adult students, such as an innovative Professional MBA program designed for working professionals, are attracting adult students who average in their 40s, according to Jaishankar Ganesh, Ph.D., dean and professor of marketing for the Rutgers School of Business in Camden.

Completed in just 21 months, the accelerated program caters to the unique needs of the adult student, such as classes held two nights per week and Saturday mornings. The PMBA is taught by Rutgers faculty at locations throughout the region, including Princeton, and includes a nine-day international residency that immerses students in global business practices.

“Rutgers-Camden is very supportive of the adult learner and we try to make it as easy as possible to obtain a degree,” says Amy Liberi, graduate school and university college recruiter for Rutgers-Camden. “We offer many evening and weekend courses to accommodate those students who have to work … because it really all comes down to finding that balance.”

Liberi advises non-traditional students to consider their career goals when making the choice to return to school, and notes there are a variety of academic programs that tend to attract adult learners based on goals like higher earning and employment potential. She, as several other local colleges and universities will agree, says some of the most sought after programs are in the fields of business, criminal justice, social work, liberal studies and psychology. Many of these courses are also hosted at remote sites throughout South Jersey, including Atlantic Cape Community College and Camden County College.

According to Vice President of Academic Affairs Margaret Hamilton, Camden County College serves nearly 12,000 adults each year in programs that range from non-credit courses taken for personal fulfillment to industry-specific career training courses. The college, which offers more than 100 programs that lead to associate degrees or certificates, works closely with local companies to deliver the skills and training the region’s employers are seeking in potential employees.

In some cases, such programs are employer-funded, such as those designed to train medical office professionals for a career in radiology. CCC also operates the Technical Institute of Camden County College, which consolidates resources and offers cutting-edge programs in industries like cosmetology and culinary arts.

The college provides access to grants, scholarships and other financial assistance to benefit adult learners who may struggle to fund their education, Hamilton says. “We encourage everyone to fill out the financial aid forms … you never know what you’ll be eligible for.”

At Rowan University, the unique needs of the non-traditional student aren’t stopping adults all the way through their 60s and beyond from returning to school to pursue a higher degree. According to Horacio Sosa, dean of the College of Graduate & Continuing Education at Rowan University, nearly 85 percent of adult learners are successfully completing their studies part time. Many take advantage of flexible online courses, as well, in disciplines such as business administration, engineering and management. These courses are often accelerated, designed to allow students to complete a full semester’s worth of studies in just eight weeks. “Adult learners are typically looking for convenience and flexibility, and that’s what we’re providing at Rowan,” Sosa says.

“Adult students tend to be self-conscious and think they’re going to be on campus surrounded by 18-year-olds—but that’s so far from the truth,” Hamilton notes. “They soon realize that they blend in perfectly, and they bring so much to the classroom environment.”

At many of the region’s educational institutions, nursing and other health care professions remain at the height of popularity for the non-traditional student. Sosa says nursing is the most popular academic program for adults at the university; the program is attracting many registered nurses who have already completed two years of education and want to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“At a time when many people are still out of work, adults make the decision to further their education because they want to better prepare for future opportunities. We are seeing an increased interest in certain areas, like health care,” Sosa adds.

Adult students who have earned decades of work experience in fields like engineering may also return to school for further training to land managerial positions, while many teachers are seeking advanced degrees to pursue other educational employment opportunities that may offer higher earning potential, he says.

That desire to move up in one’s career, combined with the convenience of a part-time education, is exactly what’s made Drexel University Online a popular choice for adults.

“Of those who are in an online degree program, 95 percent of them are adult learners,” says Dr. Kenneth Hartman, president of Drexel Online, adding the e-learning program offers more than 100 degree programs—but it’s health care, business, IT, library science and engineering that are most popular.

“Close to 80 percent of our graduate students are in an online program,” Hartman adds.

“When you have that large of a percentage of students coming to you in an online format, you better take it seriously.”

Drexel’s Online Learning Council does that by constantly evaluating program quality.

Among the services available to help the adult, online learner are counseling, financial aid, tutorial assistance, a robust online library, and 24/7 tech support. “If you’ve given us your time to come to our program,” Hartman says, “then regardless of what your degree program is, we owe you the opportunity to succeed.”

Drexel’s online program is asynchronistic, meaning the classes aren’t conducted in real-time. Through weekly assignments and video presentations, students have the chance to work at their own pace. But there are opportunities for group work and one-on-one professor time as well.

Over at Burlington County College, which has a degree completion program with Drexel, it’s nursing, business administration, and liberal arts and sciences that attracts the most adult students age 50 and older, according to Seelpa Keshvala, Ph.D., executive director of the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program and recruitment for BCC.

Personal fulfillment plays a large role in the decision to return to school; liberal arts and sciences students, Keshvala says, are often first-time college students. “They’re interested in pursuing a dream that they didn’t have an opportunity to pursue earlier in life,” she explains. “The social service sector is particularly popular amongst this student demographic. … They often talk about wanting to give back to their community.”

Max Slusher, executive director of Institutional Effectiveness & Research at BCC, notes there were more than 1,700 students age 35 and older enrolled as of the fall 2011 semester. Popular programs for adults include: applied science, human resources, accounting, green energy, business management technology, and a pre-allied health program that eventually leads to an advanced degree in fields like dental hygiene, nursing, diagnostic medical sonography, and health information technology.

Gloucester County College is experiencing a similar trend toward health-related professions, adds Susan Hall, dean of nursing and allied health at GCC. These students are finding abundant employment opportunities within the region’s outpatient facilities, free-standing clinics, and long-term care facilities, she says.

“Health care is at the forefront of the region’s employment opportunities, but students should be creative with what they want to do with their careers,” says Hall. “They’re not just limited to hospitals. … The opportunities are endless.”

The propensity for the adult learner toward certificate programs cannot be understated; at GCC, there are 61 certificate programs that are highly sought after by the non-traditional student, says Patricia Claghorn, dean of continuing education for GCC. These certificates range from sports nutrition consulting and tax preparation to digital photography and customer service. The college also offers programs in small business development and entrepreneurship. These all allow for further career opportunities and help build a more significant résumé.

“The main reason adults are returning to school is to change their lives,” Hartman says.

“Different people want to change their lives in different ways. Some people do it because they’re looking for a promotion. S­­ome people want to change their careers. Others look at it as a badge, something they want to earn to be a good role model for their children.”

Regardless of their reasons for returning to the classroom, the adult learner will find no shortage of resources to guide them on their journey to an advanced degree or certificate, improved earning potential, and the realization of their personal and career goals. At BCC, for one, the Offices of Academic Advising and Special Populations offers counseling services to help adult students address their personal and academic concerns, including work-life balance issues, academic tutoring referrals, learning or physical disabilities, and other concerns.

GCC also provides non-traditional students with an array of resources, such as self-evaluation tools and counseling, to help identify their strengths, narrow down an academic course of study, or decide upon a career change.

“Putting yourself in a high-demand field isn’t enough—it has to be the right fit for you. That’s where we come in,” Claghorn asserts.

Best of all, the region’s colleges and universities are well versed in the regional economy, and use the current job market as their guide when developing resources and enhancing their academic courses.

“Adult students have lives. They have children, mortgages, car payments … and the days of only worrying about themselves are over,” Hamilton concludes. “But adults should never be afraid to return to school—they’re not going to do this alone. We have resources they never could have imagined, and teams of people who are going to help them every step of the way.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 2, Issue 3 (March, 2012).
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