More colleges target needs of adult learners

Programs tailored to fit work schedule, experience

`It's convenient ... economical'

Shaky job market, rise of Internet are factors

November 30, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After 30 years as a nurse, Carolyn Eddington finally is getting her bachelor of science in nursing degree. The motivating factor for her was the accelerated program offered for the first time this year by the College of Notre Dame.

The program will let Eddington, 47, earn her degree in 2 1/2 years through Thursday morning classes, many taught at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, where she is a nurse. In addition, as long as Eddington keeps a C average, Good Samaritan will pay most of her tuition costs.

"It's convenient, it's economical, they're helping pay for it, and it's right there at the hospital," said Eddington, who has an associate's degree from Baltimore City Community College. "It's like it was set up for me."

Notre Dame, which also offers an accelerated business program, is just one of many colleges and universities in Maryland and across the nation offering accelerated programs that are tailored for adult learners.

In the Baltimore area, Villa Julie College is offering accelerated degrees in nursing and business administration, and the Johns Hopkins University has a 13 1/2 -month accelerated nursing course, to name a few.

"It's higher education's answer to what the students really want," said John A. Sabatini Jr., acting secretary of higher education for Maryland.

He noted that the accelerated programs must meet the same criteria as any other higher education program to be accredited. They must provide the same courses, with the same number of credit hours, taught by comparably qualified faculty.

"You're going to get the same skills and values, the same knowledge, the same outcomes," he said.

The most common mechanism for speeding up the time line is forsaking the regular 15-week semester system in favor of a one-course-at-a-time approach, with courses that last between four and 10 weeks. Instead of long summer and winter breaks, students get a few weeks off for holidays.

"The students should be aware going in, it's going to be rigorous, maybe even more rigorous because of the time constraints," Sabatini said. "You're going to be doing more work in a shorter amount of time, which can be rather demanding. For the mature and organized student, I think it's a good thing."

The accelerated format seems ideal for adult learners who, in many cases, can take only one course at a time. Like Eddington, most of these adult students work full time and have to take courses at nights and on weekends.

"Adult students simply do not have the time to do a degree completion taking one course at a time in a 15-week format," said Susan Nickens, associate dean for graduate and professional studies at Villa Julie.

The reasons these programs are enjoying such popularity can be summed up succinctly, many officials say: the economy and the Internet.

The shaky economy has prompted many adults to return to school in hopes of changing careers or making themselves more valuable. As Eddington noted, once she graduates from the Notre Dame program, she will have more opportunities for advancement.

The Internet has made it possible for universities to offer supplements to class time, such as online conversations with professors and classmates as well as resource materials for independent learning.

Internet-supported classes are increasingly common at all levels of higher education, but in some ways they are particularly useful to adult learners, who have less free time and may have more discipline for independent learning.

Nayna Philipsen, director of education and examination at the Maryland Board of Nursing, said requirements for nursing programs vary by state, but "in Maryland, the Maryland Board of Nursing requires that the accelerated program meets all the requirements of any regular program."

Accelerated programs seem to be a natural fit for nursing because a nursing shortage has created demand and because programs can be created for students who have some knowledge or college credits, she said.

Adult learners also offer each other the benefit of their life experiences, said Deborah Calhoun, director of Notre Dame's Accelerated College and Weekend College and an associate business professor.

At Notre Dame, the accelerated nursing program is set up with "cohorts" of about 20 students who take classes together. Students must have at least three years of nursing experience to qualify for the program, "and we prefer people who are working now," she said. "We rely on their work experience and life experience significantly when we are teaching new concepts."

For students who arrive with 60 credits, the equivalent of an associate's degree, the Notre Dame program will take 2 1/2 years. For students with fewer credits, it will take longer.

The program is organized in a logical progression, Calhoun said, so that students move forward together, without the agonizing experience of waiting to continue because a required class is filled or offered only at an inconvenient time.

And it's good for the hospital too. "It absolutely fit for what we were looking for," said Stacey Brull, director of professional development at Good Samaritan. "They were willing to come to Good Sam and teach the classes at Good Sam, and our nurses really wanted that."

Plus, she said, "one course at a time is nice for nurses who have not been in school for a long time." The hospital is "really looking into growing our employees. Great things come when people are learning and growing and have more knowledge."

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