TAMPA — When Kevin Johnson decided to go back to school after sitting on an associate’s degree for more than 20 years, he couldn’t imagine signing up for one of those leading-edge, work-at-home online degree programs.
“I just didn’t see as much value in that,” said Johnson, a downtown Tampa business manager. “I could sit there and take online courses all day, but I felt like I would just be going through the motions. You don’t feel as involved.”
Instead, Johnson, 41, enrolled in Eckerd College’s Program for Experienced Learners, a degree path designed to fit the lifestyle and learning preferences of the group categorized as “adult learners” who now make up 40 percent of the college population.
Credits from his Pennsylvania degree were accepted by Eckerd. Leaning on his real-world experience, he tested out of six classes. And last week, he finished his coursework, with his business management degree pending.
“I took a lot of electives, explored things I had never done before,” he said. “In that way, it certainly exceeded my expectations.”
The Eckerd Program for Experienced Learners experience flies in the face of recent trends suggesting higher education is heading for the Internet. The number of college students taking at least one online course nearly doubled from 23 percent to 45 percent over the last five years with more than 60 percent of U.S. colleges and universities now offering fully online degree programs.
The Program for Experienced Learners bucks that trend by design. It’s a well-accepted principal in academia that people have different learning styles. And an Eckerd marketing study of potential adult learners in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties confirmed they were more comfortable with an old-school higher education experience.
“We found that a viable number of people are still into this mode of learning, and not relying on online courses,” said Olivier Debure, an Eckerd language professor who is coordinating the college’s efforts to further define and grow the Program for Experienced Learners program. “They are interested in the programs we offer, they are interested in small classes, they are interested in discussion and networking in the classroom. We’re liberal arts people, so it’s nice to know we have an audience.”
Eckerd’s full-time Program for Experienced Learners students typically take two classes at a time, two nights a week in 8-week terms. There are five terms – two in the spring, two in the fall, and one in the summer.
Classes are held evenings and weekends at the main Eckerd campus on the St. Petersburg waterfront and at a West Shore Boulevard branch campus in Tampa.
There were 531 Program for Experienced Learners students enrolled in the 2012-13 year. The program offers six majors – American studies, business management, human development, humanities, management and organizational studies, but students and administrators can work to customize a line of study if their interests stray from those majors.
Eckerd not only accepts previously earned credits, but has protocols to award what it calls “experiential credit,” for those with industry certification, licenses or other vocational expertise. The students pay $314 per credit hour.
Program for Experienced Learners graduates earn the same degrees as their younger peers, and graduate alongside them.
Craig Anderson’s life path is typical of an adult learner. The Detroit native attended Eastern Michigan University more than 20 years ago, but left after three years. He started working, “things started working out, and college got pushed more and more to the back burner.”
But getting a degree was “one of those things nagging at my brain that I need to finish,” said Anderson, a director of youth programs at the Lowry Park Zoo.
The Eckerd Program for Experienced Learners fit. “I don’t see myself sitting in a class with 18- and 19-year-olds,” said Anderson, 41, of St. Petersburg. “I did that when I was 18 and 19. Doing everything through email wouldn’t necessarily cut it for me, either.”
Anderson has another year in the program before he earns a degree in human development.
That peer aspect is “huge,” said Margaret Skaftadottir, associate dean of the faculty for the program. “That’s what I’ve heard a number of times. They don’t want to be in classes with 18-year-olds. The level of discussion is so much different. The younger students are wonderful – they’re enthusiastic and idealistic – but there’s a level of experience that I think creates a different kind of discussion with the older students.”
It’s a different atmosphere for faculty, as well. Alaina Tackitt, admissions and outreach coordinator who also teaches Program for Experienced Learners classes, recalls a lesson revolving around Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“I had a student who worked with Martin Luther King,” she said. “I teach residential students at USF, too, 18-year-olds, and you don’t usually run into that.”
Eckerd’s push toward adult learners comes as national groups are expressing alarm at the shape of the U.S. workforce.
A 2012 study by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce determined that by 2020, 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require some level of postsecondary education. Currently, just 43 percent of the adult population aged 25-34 has achieved a two-year degree or higher, according to the American Council on Education.
The council is joined by President Barack Obama, the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and the National Governors Association in calling for an effort to raise the percentage of those with some postgraduate degree certification or credential to 60 percent by 2025.
“I am very pleased to see an institution like Eckerd being very serious about figuring out a way to meet the needs of this large segment of college and university degree-seekers,” said Cathy Sandeen, vice president of education attainment and innovation at the national council. “They’re addressing a huge need in the marketplace.”