Hidden among the trees and rolling hills of Columbia lies the Maryland branch of the University of Phoenix - a campus with no athletic complexes or voluminous libraries.
Entirely within the first floor of a four-story office building in Columbia Corporate Park, the university looks more like a high-profile corporation than an institution of higher learning. But its businesslike appearance is perfect for the kind of students it targets: employed adults looking to enhance their resumes with a bachelor's or master's degree in business.
Phoenix, which made Columbia its first Maryland campus last year, is part of a trend in adult education. Online courses and night classes are gaining popularity among adult students because they offer more flexibility than traditional universities, education researchers say.
"I like the way you move quickly through the material," said Helen Charles, a student in the third week of the business management program. "I think this is the only way I could go to school."
Officials at Phoenix, which has about 450 students registered in programs in Columbia, say the Maryland venture has been so successful that they're planning to expand to Baltimore County within the year.
Yesterday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening joined Phoenix founder John Sperling and several Howard County and university officials for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Although the Maryland campus has been open for more than a year, university officials said it had never formally introduced itself to the community.
Overall, the University of Phoenix enrolls more than 74,000 students across the country. Classes are held in the evenings, and the students are at least 23 years old and employed.
"We consistently find in our surveys that students aren't choosing between the University of Phoenix and other universities," said Paul Hamlin, vice president and director of the Maryland campus. "They are choosing between us and no education."
Adult students find that they can't conform to more traditional universities so they turn to Phoenix, Hamlin said.
"The unique schedule of this school allows students to pursue their degrees more quickly than they could at another school," said Laura Remer, Maryland campus' department chairwoman in undergraduate business. "Students find that it's practical."
Phoenix has awarded more than a half-million degrees since Sperling founded the university in 1976. Campuses are at more than 17 sites, primarily throughout the West and South. Maryland was Phoenix's first venture in the Northeast.
Phoenix has opened campuses in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the year since the Maryland branch started.
Each branch of the university has been accredited by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
The price in Maryland is $270 a credit, above University of Maryland University College's $183 charge, but competitive with private school rates.
Instructors must be employed full time and have a minimum of five years' work experience in their fields of expertise.
Phoenix prides itself on small classes - usually fewer than 21 students.
"Adult students want to know how they can use the information they are learning right away," Remer said.
The students at the Columbia campus come from their day jobs throughout the Baltimore and Washington area.
From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. one night a week, these working professionals are students. They sit in classrooms, take notes, study for tests and prepare projects.
All undergraduate students are on a two-year track. They take one five-week course at a time. Each course meets once a week for four hours. Students also are required to participate in five hours of group study each week.
The classrooms and study rooms are appropriately modern. Dry-erase boards and overhead projectors are the standard classroom tools.
During breaks from their classes, students can snack in a small room that houses three vending machines.
"We call this our student union," Hamlin said with a chuckle.
The facilities are simple, but students said they aren't looking for amenities; they're looking for a quick degree without a lot of extra costs.
The Columbia campus offers a bachelor of science in business with majors in accounting, administration, information systems and management.
It also awards three master's degrees in business administration, a master's in arts in organizational management and a master's in science in computer information systems.
Phoenix has been successful at meeting the needs of adult students and harnessing Internet technology, said Greg Baroni, a senior vice president for KPMG Consulting, an international firm that advises universities and other industries.
Traditional universities are slowly changing their approaches to education, but the University of Phoenix, Baroni said, was one of the first to offer accredited college courses over the Internet.