Variety of courses attract older faces to college classrooms


March 06, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

The sun streaks through a practice room at Essex Community College, adding a sudden dimension of poignancy to the music coming from pianist Walter Hartman, flutist Olga Brunner and cellist Toni Dunlap. Together they are exploring a piece by Bohuslav Martinu, the 20th-century Czech composer.

A small man with large, wise hands, Mr. Hartman has been playing piano for 72 years, the last 30 as part of amateur chamber ensembles. Every Saturday, he increases his musical knowledge through the guidance of his chamber music instructor, Arno Drucker, ECC professor and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra pianist.

"It's marvelous to work with a professional with great talent," Mr. Hartman says. "Dr. Drucker just opens up the music vista with one little remark: You see something you have never seen before even though you've played it 100 times."

You can consider Mr. Hartman a devoted musician and a very satisfied consumer of continuing education. This semester he shares his teacher with 24 other students enrolled in ECC's course No. 3505: Chamber Ensemble. During the two-hour class, Dr. Drucker --es from group to group, refining the sounds from a dozen ensembles as if he were a master chef judiciously adjusting cooking flames. In one room, a silver-haired string trio plays Beethoven. In another, long-haired guitar players bravely enter a galliard by Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius.

"One of the best things about this program is that this wide age range forces high school kids to work with much older people," says Dr. Drucker. "The interaction is wonderful! The older people have the maturity and the steadiness and the young people have the vitality and enthusiasm. There's a great deal of mutual respect."

This blending of the generations in Essex classrooms has become more typical of college life than many realize. During the past 20 years, the "non-traditional" part-time student has become the norm. An American Council on Education report, based on 1987 data, estimated that "traditional" full-time enrollment was 5.8 million while part-time enrollment in credit courses reached nearly 12 million.

No national survey has included the estimated millions of Americans who take non-credit college courses ranging from desktop publishing to scuba diving. Judging by catalogs from the colleges and universities in the Baltimore metropolitan area, however, thousands are seeking to improve their lives with mini-courses, some of which last only one day.

When Essex opened its present campus in Rosedale in 1968, there were 2,000 students. Now there are 25,000 -- with roughly 15,000 enrolled in non-credit courses, says Charlotte Bartels, director of the college's division of non-credit continuing education. Instruction costs range from $10 for a two-night boating safety course to $425 for an eight-week office skills refresher course.

"The focus in non-credit has shifted away from avocational courses and toward courses that will help people with their jobs," Ms. Bartels says.

Computers are big at Essex; courses in Lotus, dBase IV and Windows are particularly popular. There are many courses in such business subjects as improving management techniques and in such health field specialties as cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"People have come to realize that education is a lifelong thing," she says. "You constantly need to upgrade your skills. People are going to change jobs multiple times so they need to be prepared for that."

The majority of non-credit students at Essex are between the ages of 35 and 50, she says, representing the trend toward older students at campuses across the country.

"Much of today's student population is working and probably has family obligations," says Noah Brown of the National University Continuing Education Association. "Many, many institutions now allow you to use a credit card to register and pay for classes. Many continuing ed departments let you register by faxing. There are pressures for colleges to provide day care and child care. Campus security is a big issue because a lot of people are traveling to colleges at night and on weekends. Location is a big priority, too."

He notes "non-traditional" students have affected the intellectual climate of higher education as well:

"On some of these campuses, one of the biggest selling points for faculty is that there are students who are slightly older, working, and motivated to do the readings and to challenge their professors. There are still plenty of faculty out there that enjoy that kind of exchange."

For sheer enthusiasm, it's hard to surpass William Fletcher, who has been gobbling weekend courses since he retired as executive vice president for Atlantic Federal Savings. For the past three years, he has spent weekends at Notre Dame College studying the Age of Discovery as well as philosophy and political science. He recently completed a course in American foreign policy of the 20th century.

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