For many, weekend plans include college Notre Dame program helps busy people learn

April 13, 1997|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

Many people were still in bed when M. Loretta Burnham left her Sykesville home at 7: 15 a.m. yesterday for her commute -- on the road to a college degree.

Burnham, 52, was headed to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, where fellow weekend students filled every campus parking space and lined both sides of nearby North Charles Street.

If it takes a special person to go to school on Saturdays, then there are plenty of special people at Notre Dame's Weekend College. The program has about 1,600 part-time, adult students, almost three times the college's full-time undergraduate enrollment of 620.

Started in 1975, Notre Dame's Weekend College is among the mid-Atlantic region's oldest. Nationally, more than 500 institutions have weekend colleges, said Sister Pamela Jablon, Weekend College director, but few offer full degree programs as Notre Dame does.

In Maryland, the University of Maryland University College, Sojourner-Douglass College and several community colleges offer weekend colleges.

Notre Dame is viewed as "leaders in the field," said JoAnn Hawkins, Howard Community College's director of lifelong learning. "Other people have used them as a model."

Next month, Burnham and 191 other Weekend College veterans will receive bachelor's degrees at Notre Dame's commencement. For most, it is the culmination of years of weekends lost in classrooms and libraries, and late weekday nights poring over texts and cranking out term papers.

"You do have to prioritize," said Burnham, who is married and has a 15-year-old son. "Do you go to the ballgame or study? You study -- or you take your books to the ballgame -- is what you do."

Burnham, a Westminster YWCA project director, devoted much of yesterday to a seminar on "Women in China: Past and Present" and a midterm exam in "Adolescent Mental Health."

When she enrolled at Notre Dame in 1992, Burnham hadn't been a college student since she attended Idaho State University in 1965, "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

"You have to learn how to study all over again," she said. "Between reading, writing and thinking, I probably spend two to three hours a day. Some weekends it takes all Saturday and Sunday."

Courses generally last 15 weeks, the traditional semester length, but classes meet only five or 10 Saturdays a semester. Independent study picks up the slack.

The typical student is a working woman, 39 years old, with children at home and some college credits to transfer, Jablon said. Sixteen percent are men. Many aspire to jobs for which a bachelor's degree is a prerequisite. For others, earning a degree a personal goal.

Taking two courses at a time, "It takes the average student three to five years to finish," Jablon said.

While some courses are career-oriented, others fall into the liberal arts tradition. Some popular offerings: "Marriage and Family," "Death and Dying," "The Philosophy of Sex and Love," and "Morals in the Marketplace."

Weekend College allows Notre Dame to use its facilities to the fullest and to tap into a growing pool of learners. Adult students make up almost half of U.S. college enrollment, and their ranks have grown by 50 percent in two decades, says the College Board, which administers the SAT college entrance exam.

Weekend College, which charges $576 per three-credit course, is also a moneymaker.

"Nationally, the adult student is the student of the future," Jablon said.

Almost two-thirds of adult students are women, and 70 percent are studying for degrees (business and education are the top majors), a recent College Board study found.

Burnham, whose major is human services, said the degree wouldn't "buy me a promotion or an increase in salary. But it allows me to try other jobs that do require a bachelor's. I have lots of experience, but I have no degree."

Pam Brantley, 41, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. clerical worker, began Weekend College more than eight years ago for career reasons. Now, she says, "it's something I started and want to see through, no matter how bad I don't want to be here." She expects to graduate in December.

Dave Belz, who teaches writing courses, said adult students are highly motivated and make working on Saturdays worthwhile.

"Weekend College is a great place to be if you want to teach," he said. "A lot of people are just thirsty for it."

In Burnham's "Women in China" seminar, instructor Weikun Cheng fielded one question after another from women curious about the role of concubines in traditional Chinese society.

Amy Myers, 20, a Notre Dame undergraduate in the class, said the older students "have deeper insights on a lot of issues, like marriage and family roles."

Studying exclusively on weekends, Notre Dame Weekend College students may earn bachelor's degrees in business, communication arts, computer information systems, elementary education, human services, liberal arts, nursing and religious studies. Others take an accelerated teacher certification course. Classes meet mainly on Saturdays, with some Friday night and Sunday sessions.

Weekend colleges started after World War II and blossomed in the 1960s when interstate highways made large-scale commuting possible, said Wayne Whelan, executive vice president of the Association for Continuing Higher Education in Charleston, S.C.

Whelan said weekend colleges have shown steady, if not spectacular, growth.

The growth of online courses may eventually cut into weekend and evening enrollment, said Julian S. Jones III, vice president of University of Maryland University College, which teaches adult students worldwide.

But nothing can substitute for the experience that Loretta Burnham is looking forward to next month: walking across the stage and receiving her college degree.

"I'm ecstatic about it," Burnham said. "It's been a long time."

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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