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Continuing Education Can Be Big Boost on Career Track

Your neighborhood coffeehouse is not what it seems. At some point during the week, it probably doubles as a college classroom. You might not notice. Andrew Shean does.

Shean is one of many San Diegans who deliver continuing education to professionals.

Adults go back to school for various reasons, and go after a range of programs. Perhaps they’re getting a certificate in digital media, or oncology nursing, or some other new or specialized area of knowledge. Maybe they’re attending evening classes to get a Master of Business Administration degree.

Frequently, Shean’s students are single parents, or people whose life situations don’t let them clear their schedules for an old-school night class. They may prefer to take courses online, and the optimum time and place, Shean said, might be Saturday morning at a coffee shop with a Wi-Fi connection.

“Online (course work) brings education to them, at their own time, at their own pace, anywhere,” said Shean, executive dean for academics at Ashford University. “That access, that mobility are huge for our students.”

Ashford University is a subsidiary of Bridgepoint Education, a San Diego corporation that also runs the University of the Rockies and serves more than 90,000 students, largely with online classes.

Shean said the typical student at Ashford University is an African-American woman between the ages of 35 and 55.

‘Retooling’ in Tough Times

Professionals continue their studies to “retool” — that is, to update their skills for the current job market, several administrators observed.

Even recent college graduates may need classes in an applied field to get a better paying job, or one that leads to a more promising career path, said Mary Walshok, dean of UC San Diego Extension. It’s part of the reason that institutions such as Bridgepoint — the parent of Ashford — are growing, the administrator said. “That is why you are seeing the exponential growth in extension enrollments as well,” Walshok said by email.

Popular offerings at UCSD Extension include courses on going green, which can help managers implement environmentally friendly practices in big institutions such as schools, hospitals, hotels and restaurants. “We have waiting lists for those courses,” Walshok said.

San Diego State University also reports success with green-themed courses.

Embracing Biotech

More than 90 percent of the students at San Diego State’s College of Extended Studies take classes related to getting a job in a field, said Joe Shapiro, the college’s dean.

The college, which serves 25,000 students per year, has several successes to report.

In 2009, Extended Studies and its partner institutions used $400,000 of federal stimulus funds to train 235 out-of-work people for careers in health care, said Wendy Evers, senior director of program development at the college. Students who targeted medical assistant or pharmacy technician jobs “seemed to do really well” in their job searches, Evers said.

Evers also reported success with a Career Transition & Development for Professionals Certificate program, conducted in concert with the San Diego Workforce Partnership Inc. During the 2009-2010 academic year, the agencies took a group of 75 unemployed people with bachelor’s degrees and work experience, and helped 85 percent of them find jobs. “We’re thrilled” with the results, Evers said.

One year ago, the college and several partner institutions announced they received nearly $5 million in federal stimulus funds for a program dubbed “Bridge,” which equips people for careers in the medical and biotechnology fields. The program serves people with a variety of backgrounds, from college graduates to people who may not have completed high school.

The Online Option

Roughly a quarter, maybe more, of the students in SDSU’s College of Extended Studies take their classes online, Shapiro said.

By going online, students can participate in College of Extended Studies classes from half a world away. They come from Alaska, Dubai, China, India and the Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean. SDSU likes the arrangement. “We made a determination we wanted to be a global university,” said Evers.

Of course, online courses serve San Diegans on the go. UCSD’s Walshok noted engineers may need to update knowledge but may be “on an airplane half the time,” so online courses work well for them.

Walshok, whose other title is associate vice chancellor for public programs, reports that UC San Diego Extension has crossed a threshold, and now delivers more than 1,000 courses online. Roughly half of its 27,000 students are online.

Some college programs blend classroom and online components.

“Some courses don’t lend themselves to online” presentation, observed David Pyke, dean of the University of San Diego’s School of Business Administration.

Case in point: USD’s online Master of Science program in supply chain management includes “residence” weeks, when students travel to the USD campus to discuss topics such as negotiations in a face-to-face environment.

The MBA Track

USD offers a variety of postgraduate degrees focusing on business. Late last year, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked USD’s evening MBA program No. 14 in the nation.

Frequently MBA candidates are good at a single discipline, such as marketing or logistics, and are looking to get a broader perspective, said Pyke, who came to USD in 2008 from Dartmouth College.

Pyke reports that interest in MBAs has fallen slightly as the recession has continued. USD begins its programs at two points during the year. Fall was strong, he reported, but winter enrollment has been “a pendulum.” Nationwide, business school applications are down, the number of people taking the business school admission test has fallen, and some universities who had been considering starting business programs have pulled back, Pyke said.

Prospective students may feel that if they have a job, they should keep it and go to school part time, Pyke said.

USD also offers a Master of Science degree in executive leadership, running the program in cooperation with Escondido-based The Ken Blanchard Cos. Students meet one weekend a month for two years. The program attracts employed people between the ages of 35 and 55 who are “very keen on being at the top of their game,” said Director Christina de Vaca.

Students include business owners, managers from Fortune 500 firms, aerospace executives, military pilots and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“We’re very reflective of the community we live in,” de Vaca said.

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