At Mission College : Degree Plan Gives Adults a Shortcut

Times Staff Writer

Dan Ferns, 36, a full-time Lockheed employee and father of four, used to despair of ever earning a college degree. He was taking part-time classes at an alternative college in Inglewood, but graduation seemed far away and he saw his school years looming interminably ahead of him.

Now Ferns believes he’s found the answer.

Last month, he and 48 other adults filed into a classroom at Los Angeles Mission College in San Fernando to begin an innovative college credential program that gives working adults an opportunity to earn an associate in arts degree in five semesters.

By enrolling in PACE, or Project for Adult College Education, Ferns has doubled his class load but still has time to putter around his ranch-like home and see his wife and children most evenings and weekends.


Disliked Alternatives

He said he shudders to think of the alternatives.

“I live out by Palmdale, work in Burbank and was commuting to National University in Inglewood,” he said. “I said to myself, there’s got to be a better way.”

Under the PACE program, students take 12 units per semester, which are earned in four classes. Most of the schooling is packed into one night of instruction from 6 to 10 p.m, said Fred Obrecht, director of the PACE program at Mission College. Students also give up eight Saturdays during the 19-week semester to attend class, and round out the curriculum with two hours per week of instructional television.

Students can watch the programs at home on Channel 58, the Los Angeles Unified School District educational outlet, or at the college itself, Obrecht said. The half-hour video cassette programs are supplied by the Consortium to Educate the People, an umbrella organization for all PACE activities in the United States.

PACE students don’t have to ponder what classes to take each semester. The curriculum is predetermined and mandatory. This semester, students are studying humanities, philosophy, environmental science and health. Classes are taught by a team of four professors on loan from Pierce College and Mission College, Obrecht said.

Philosophy Prof. Nicholas Habib said he uses current events to help students relate to his lectures. “Our first topic is world hunger,” he told the packed class, which meets Wednesday nights.

Developed 12 Years Ago

Although the PACE concept was developed 12 years ago at Wayne State University in Detroit, it has caught on slowly because many colleges have lacked funds in recent years to implement new programs, PACE administrators said. In the Los Angeles area, Mission College is one of three schools to offer the program.

Los Angeles Harbor College and California State University, Dominguez Hills, also offer PACE programs. The Harbor College program, which began in 1981 with 90 students, now has nearly 500 enrolled in the program, said Thomas O’Dea, a former dean of instruction at Harbor College who serves as PACE adviser at Mission College.

At Dominguez Hills, PACE includes an upper-division program in which students may earn a bachelor’s degree. The program began in 1981 with 60 students and now has about 200, said Kenneth Gash, PACE director at Dominguez Hills.

According to a study completed last year at Harbor College, the average PACE student is from 35 to 40 years old and has little or no prior exposure to college.

Nearly 300 Enrolled

Administrators had hoped to enroll 200 students in the Mission College program, but enrollment has exceeded that and is nearing 300. PACE students pay $50 a semester, the same fee charged throughout the state community college system, Obrecht said. Students who complete 60 units are awarded an associate of arts degree in liberal studies. Those wishing to transfer to a four-year college can then apply their credits to four-year state colleges, PACE officials said.

In addition to the Mission College group, PACE classes meet weekly at Lockheed California in Burbank, Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills and Granada Hills High School.

Numerous employees at these locations are enrolled in the program, Obrecht said. Ferns could have enrolled at Lockheed, for instance, but said he preferred to attend school away from his work environment.

For many San Fernando Valley students, enrolling in the program has been an apprehensive but exciting first step toward fulfilling a lifelong ambition.

“I feel I want to do something with my life, to give it more meaning,” 46-year-old Judy Robakowski of North Hollywood said as she sat nervously waiting for class to begin. “Many people who work spend many years taking a lot of classes. . . . I’ll do it in 2 1/2 years.”

Low Dropout Rate

O’Dea said PACE students are among the most motivated he has met. He cited Harbor College’s low dropout rate--15% per semester--as an example of this commitment. By comparison, the dropout rate each semester in the Los Angeles Community College District is 24%, a district spokesman said.

Critics of the program have raised doubts about the academic rigor of PACE’s unorthodox program. O’Dea acknowledged that he too was skeptical when he first heard about the format.

But O’Dea and other PACE administrators contend their program is as tough as conventional college programs. They say students spend about 24 hours a week reading and studying, in addition to the instructional television.

At Mission College, students take midterm and final tests, and most classes require research projects or several term papers, Obrecht said.

Program’s Attractions

Although students said the program’s main attraction is its accelerated pace, they also cited the desire to earn a degree and compete for promotions at work.

“It’s not enough to have job experience,” Ferns said. “You are very marketable with a degree. It increases your upward mobility.”

Community college administrators also like PACE. Colleges are awarded state funds based on student enrollment. As many community colleges face declining enrollment, PACE offers a way to increase state aid by attracting students who carry a full-time load of 12 units, administrators said.

For instance, only about 600 of Mission College’s approximately 4,000 students are enrolled full-time, Obrecht said. With PACE, the school has attracted almost 300 new full-time students and because of that will qualify for more state funds.

And Ferns? Three weeks into the program, he’s awash in schoolwork. But he said he intends to study diligently to get the most from the program instead of just emerging with a degree.

“No compromises. I want to learn all the little nooks and crannies,” he said, adjusting the spectacles on his nose.