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New Degree of Interest in Education for Adulst.

Times Staff Writer

It’s been two years since Bill Stenhause completed an in-house survey for Hughes Aircraft Co. in Fullerton that showed most successful Hughes executives held advanced college degrees.

“Since then it has been in my mind to get a graduate degree,” said Stenhause, a 45-year-old marketing analyst who has aspirations of moving into the Hughes executive ranks. So several months ago, Stenhause enrolled at National University, a San Diego-based institution that teaches adults at centers scattered throughout Southern California. Hughes is paying all of his tuition bill.

Stenhause is just one of an estimated 3 million full-time employees over the age of 30 nationwide who are returning to school in mid-career to get bachelor’s, master’s and even Ph.D. degrees, primarily in business or computer-related subjects.

The flood of students has set up a fierce competition among private and profit-making, adult-oriented schools and nowhere is the competition more intense than in Orange County, where at least 10 private, accredited advanced degree-granting institutions--and 22 unaccredited ones--have set up shop.

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Representatives of the schools say they have been lured by the county’s large pool of young, upwardly mobile white-collar workers, a group of potential students the state colleges and universities in the area so far have made little effort to serve.

Cost Can Be High

The county also is attractive because many employers, eager to recruit and keep the best workers, reimburse their employees for most or all of the cost of attaining a higher degree. The cost can be high, and many adult students say that without employer reimbursements they couldn’t afford to return to school, especially at some private institutions which charge up to $295 a unit, or nearly $1,200 for the average four-unit course.

Orange County companies are even more likely to provide educational reimbursements for their workers than Los Angeles firms, according to Anne Kimbell Relph, director of the University of Southern California’s Orange County Center. She says the fast growth of the county’s electronics and computer software industries has sharpened “the competition for good people.”

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Vying for the attention of prospective students, some of the private adult-oriented college centers, most notably National and Pepperdine universities, have filled the radio airwaves and local newspapers with advertising pitches.

“Ten years ago the idea of advertising in a newspaper by an institution of education was almost a cardinal sin,” said Jim Miklich, vice president of the University of Phoenix. But education has changed “from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market,” he said. “Universities found they could no longer sit back and students would come to them because they were there.”

Non-Traditional Programs

To cater to the new breed of students, the private colleges have designed non-traditional programs. Besides offering courses in the evening and over weekends, they are consolidating classroom hours into fewer meetings and eliminating semester breaks--shrinking by a third or more the time required to attain a degree. Moreover, in some cases students are allowed to claim credit for learning gleaned from such “life experiences” as building a sailboat or going through a divorce.

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The academic shortcuts are not universally accepted. While supporters tout them as viable methods for teaching adults who are burdened with career and family responsibilities, they are denounced as the trappings of a second-class education by some educators and employers who evaluate job applications.

Private colleges readily acknowledge that adult education is a money-maker. Maureen McGovern, regional marketing director for the University of San Francisco’s College of Professional Studies’ Southern California headquarters in Orange, said that since the San Francisco-based Jesuit college launched its off-campus adult degree program throughout California in 1975, it has come to generate 20% of the institution’s annual revenue.

And Dan Cohen, executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of Redlands, said that the Alfred North Whitehead Center for Lifelong Learning, which enrolls approximately half of Redlands’ 2,400 students in classes throughout Southern California, nets about $2 million a year for the university, more than matching the annual income from the school’s $20-million endowment.

‘A Lucrative Field’

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“It is a lucrative field, granting degrees,” said Bill Unger, acting director of the private post-secondary education division of the California Department of Education. “The employers have created a market for degrees and so employees are looking to find any way they can to get them. And they might be looking for the quickest way.”

The older generation of students has high expectations of what further education can do for them in the marketplace. Several students studying for a bachelor’s degree in computer science at National University’s center in Irvine said they anticipated automatic raises upon graduation. According to their instructor, a recent graduate was rewarded with a $10,000-a-year pay raise.

Several Orange County companies said that a degree, although only one of many factors in promotion decisions, can definitely help a candidate’s chances. Joyce Bunge, employee relations administrator at Pacific Mutual’s headquarters in Newport Beach, said that often during annual performance reviews “in order to advance some professional course or degree is noted as one of the objectives to reach by the next review period.” Because they are hungry for promotions, pay raises or entirely new careers, working adults usually want to compress their studies into as short a time as possible. They are willing to sacrifice convenient access to libraries and the luxury of extended study time for speed and convenience.

Apply a Year in Advance

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State colleges in the Orange County area are hesitantly following the private schools into offering part-time degree programs for the full-time employed. Some employers would prefer their employees to attend state institutions for their lower fees and more traditional instruction. But many potential state college enrollees are discouraged by having to take such classes on campus. Moreover, the undergraduate computer and business programs at Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton are oversubscribed, requiring students to apply almost a year in advance.

Responding to public demand, UC Irvine this fall will inaugurate an executive MBA program designed for mid-level managers. In the fall of 1986, Cal State Fullerton hopes to open a teaching-center annex that will offer evening classes. If state authorization is forthcoming, the center will be built somewhere in the southern part of the county to serve the young, education-minded professionals of Mission Viejo and Irvine.

Longer to Plumb New Markets

Dr. Donald Fletcher, the state college system’s deputy dean of extended education, said the state system takes much longer to plumb new markets than private schools because it is accountable to several layers of administration. “We believe in the Burger King theory of marketing,” Fletcher said. “Burger King follows McDonald’s. We go where National (University) goes.”

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Where National and other profit-making schools are going is after the baby-boom generation, which has grown up and is returning to school in unprecedented numbers at the same time that the traditional college-age population is shrinking. The National Center for Education Statistics has projected that in the decade ending in 1992, the number of adults returning to school part time at age 35 or older will have increased 45%, while the number of students aged 14 to 24 would decline 25%.

Classrooms in Office Buildings

Within the last five years, several nationally recognized and accredited institutions--including the University of Southern California, United States International University, National University and University of Phoenix--have opened administrative offices and classrooms in office buildings near the John Wayne Airport, the hub of Orange County’s fastest-growing business community.

Relph, executive director of the USC Orange County Center, figures there are 900 companies within a five-mile radius of the center, which is located on Campus Drive in Irvine. She views all as potential clients.

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USC and the other schools also conduct classes and seminars in hotels, community centers and churches and on company premises--wherever about 20 interested employees can be gathered together.

One of the biggest magnets for adult-education providers in Orange County is the El Toro Marine Base. Six colleges and universities currently hold classes on the base and many more are clamoring to get in. Within the past year and a half the number of El Toro Marines attending school has swollen by 80%, according to Master Sgt. Ron Miller, the base’s education coordinator.

In-House Courses

Colleges are also seeking--and being sought by--companies that want to establish in-house courses tailored to the needs of particular employee groups.

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About 40 Pacific Bell employees, for instance, are taking classes toward a “bachelor of arts in business” degree that National University is teaching in the basement of the utility’s regional facility in Orange.

Employers, through their benefit policies, frequently encourage their workers to seek more education. According to the Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., which represents some 3,000 companies in Southern California, about 80% of Southland employers offer to reimburse employees a portion of the cost of furthering their education, and half of those set no reimbursement limit. Several of the local private colleges said that 50% to 70% of their students receive some employer tuition compensation.

Companies usually reimburse employees only for courses completed with passing grades at institutions accredited by the Western Regional Assn. of Schools and Colleges or other nationally recognized accrediting organizations.

There are also non-accredited institutions that offer a wide range of post-secondary degrees. They range from colleges which meet virtually no quality standards to those that comply with standards similar to what is required by private accrediting organizations.

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Bill Haldeman, assistant director of the state Post Secondary Education Commission, said some of the schools that have operated legally in California have been “only one step up from degree mills.” More recently, he said, state laws regulating such schools have toughened. But, he said, “since the mid-70s under the no-standards provision of the law they could and did advertise doctoral programs for $2,500 to $3,000 and have a minimal kind of curriculum.”

Some Orange County employers say they are concerned that even accredited for-profit institutions may be tempted, especially when freshman enrollments and government-sponsored student aid are declining, to operate substandard off-campus classes to attract workers who can count on their companies to pay the bills.

Counsel Employees

Dan Reeder, a spokesman for Hughes Aircraft’s Fullerton plant, which employs 14,500 workers, said the plant’s human resources department is developing a program to counsel employees how to pick and choose among the accredited schools. Currently, he said, it is “a potluck situation” whether a worker will get a quality education.

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A personnel officer with a major Orange County manufacturing firm who didn’t want to be identified called the accelerated programs “an absolute joke.” He said that although his firm will reimburse its employees who attend non-traditional colleges, he would not give much weight to degrees from those institutions in assessing employment resumes.

“If I had two candidates apply for a job with equal credentials and one had an MBA from Long Beach State and another from the University of Phoenix, I’d take the Long Beach guy,” he said. “It’s just a better degree.”

‘Believe in Ivory Towers’

In retort, LaVerne W. Bulluck, division manager at the University of Phoenix’s regional headquarters in Costa Mesa, dubbed the critical personnel officer a “traditionalist,” one of those who “believe in the ivory towers.” She said that the University of Phoenix, a for-profit school founded exclusively to serve a working student body, meets the standards of the North Central Assn. of Colleges and Schools.

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Morgan Odell, executive director of the Santa Ana-based Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities, said he believes the disadvantages of part-time “extended-degree” programs are overcome by the greater maturity of the students. “Generally they take it seriously and get a lot more out of it than they would have 20 years before,” he said. Students in the off-campus programs also benefit by being taught largely by part-time professors who spend their days plying their knowledge in the business world, say the programs’ proponents.

The phenomenon of off-campus higher education is praised by the students themselves, many of whom tell war stories about their frustrated attempts to attain degrees through traditional school systems. They recall searching through school catalogues to find classes offered in the evening and driving long distances to campuses to take a course or two each semester.

He Lost Credits

David Schmidt, a 35-year-old computer software consultant who lives in Garden Grove, figures he has spent 10 years in traditional campus settings without achieving a four-year degree, partly because he lost credits when transferring from school to school.

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If Schmidt enrolled part time in a state college and took the usual six to nine units a quarter, he said it would take him another four years to complete his undergraduate education. But by taking a course a month at National University in Irvine, he expects to graduate in about nine months.

Bob Messemer, sales manager for a cement company in Riverside who has taught business classes at several local adult-education centers, acknowledged, “They are not Stanford, Yale and Princeton and never will be. It’s like comparing a Rolls-Royce and a Ford.”

But Messemer defends the adult-oriented colleges for “providing an educational opportunity for people who for one reason or another had given it up.” They are filling a need, he said, because “the public schools and better private schools don’t provide education to the working guy.”


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