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Executive education: Back to school

Nora Caley //August 17, 2009//

Executive education: Back to school

Nora Caley //August 17, 2009//

As unemployment rates go up, so does the number of inquiries to college admissions offices.

Higher education is countercyclical to the rest of the economy. Colleges and universities typically see rising enrollments during recessions. Laid off workers go back to school hoping that by the time they earn a degree, the economy will improve and jobs will be plentiful. Employed people return to the classroom to gain skills that might help them avoid the next round of cuts at their companies. Still others decide that now is the perfect time to revisit their long-lost career dreams.

Representatives from local colleges and universities are noticing these trends. 


“We are seeing people come back not just because they were laid off, but to increase their job skills and make themselves more marketable,” says Maria Puzziferro, dean of academic affairs for CSU-Global Campus, Colorado State University’s online program for adult learners.

CSU launched the program in 2008 with 250 students and now has about 1,000 students enrolled. “Online is maturing,” Puzziferro says. “Ten years ago people thought online was easy. Now it’s starting to mature and evolve. People understand the rigor and the convenience.”

Denise Pearson, associate academic dean of the University of Denver University College, says some older students think earning a degree might give them more job security. “Usually they feel they were downsized because they had less education than other people at their company,” she says. University College, DU’s school of professional and continuing studies, has 877 students enrolled this summer, a 2.6 percent increase over last year.

Paula Wallace, graduate school academic adviser for the University of Colorado Denver, says some students are adults retooling their career, and others are younger students who recently earned their bachelor’s degrees and are postponing their job searches.

“They are looking at the job market as being fairly daunting,” Wallace says. “Rather than jumping in and trying to find a job, they decide a graduate degree in business would be a better fit, so they go that route.”

Still others were laid off but want to stay in their industries. Scott Tongen worked in commercial real estate underwriting and was laid off in April 2008. He signed up for the 11-month MBA program at the UC Denver Business School. He hopes to get a job in commercial credit analysis.

“There aren’t as many positions out there as there were a couple of years ago, but I’m hoping the MBA will help me have that edge over people who might not have continued their education,” he says. He finished the program in July.

Bill Husson, vice president for professional studies and strategic alliances for Regis University, says in the adult program, the College for Professional Studies, new enrollments are up 10 percent compared to last year. Some adults return to school because the degrees they earned years ago might not enable them to compete with today’s job seekers.

“We talk about how the lifetime of a degree would be X amount of years, and last time I looked it was 10 years,” Husson says. “In terms of changing aspects of society and the information you need that you will get from a degree, it will not last you as long now.” The average age of a student in the Regis professional studies program is 33.

Elena Sandoval-Lucero, director of admissions and outreach for Metropolitan State College of Denver, says overall, applications are up 39 percent compared to this time last year. Applications for financial aid are up about 30 percent. Transfer applications, mostly from people who earned a two-year degree from a community college and now want to earn a bachelor’s degree, are up 50 percent.

There’s even increased interest among recent high school graduates, up about 25 percent from last year. “They are now competing for jobs with professionals who got laid off,” she says. For example, she says, retail jobs traditionally attract high school graduates, but now they’re having a hard time getting those jobs.

Mike Moroney, vice president for enrollment and marketing for Colorado Christian University, says most students hope to enhance their current careers, not transition into new lines of work. “They lose a lot of capital if they do that,” he says. “If they can go in and say, ‘Let me broaden within my area of expertise,’ that increases their value, versus if they say, ‘I’m an engineer, and now I want to be a nurse.’”

Anne Heinz, the dean for Continuing Education and Professional Studies and the associate vice chancellor for summer session at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says 7,500 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled for summer school this year, up 2 percent compared to last year. Some students enroll after their real estate or other companies shuttered.

Community colleges are also doing well during the economic downturn. Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, says resident enrollment was up 10.8 percent in spring 2009 compared to spring 2008. For the summer 2009 session, resident enrollment increased 18.5 percent from summer 2008. The 13-college system is seeing these increases not only because people are going back to school to gain new skills, but they’re attending community college because it’s less expensive than four-year programs.

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Popular programs

Just as the reasons for going back to school are varied, the most sought-after programs are also varied.

McCallin says the most popular Colorado Community College programs are nursing, business, child development, emergency medical services and criminal justice. “We have a lot of growth in our new-energy programs as well,” she says. For example, Red Rocks Community College has degree and certificate programs in solar energy.

This spring, CU Boulder’s Division of Continuing Education and Professional Studies launched CU Complete, a service that offers academic, career and financial aid advice to former students who wish to return to complete a degree. Heinz says some career changers have specific questions, such as which biology courses should they take so they can transfer to a nursing school. Others are less focused.

“We have people who say, ‘I really like working with people and I’m really fast on the computer, and I don’t like working nine to five so what do you think?’” Heinz says.

Some of the most popular Continuing Education and Professional Studies programs at CU Boulder are biotechnology, engineering, telecommunications and sustainable practices. CU Boulder also offers Available Credit Courses for Eligible Special Students (ACCESS).

Non-degree students can take a course in business or digital media, for example, to see if they want to pursue it further.

Anne Sandoe, director of MBA Programs at the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder, says those students have not been laid off, but they hope the additional MBA credential will help them maintain their employment.

“We see a lot of interest in entrepreneurship, not necessarily for starting their own business, but how to take an entrepreneurial approach and assess the feasibility of an opportunity, whether or not they own the company,” she says. “It’s a way to enhance their value to an organization.”

At UC Denver, one new program is the Master of Science in Global Energy Management. The program began in January with 30 students. John Turner, the executive director of the program, says it’s designed for executives who want to become chief executive officers or start their own companies. “We have seen a big increase in inquires about the program,” he says.

Several areas are growing at the University of Denver. Lynn Gangone, the dean of The Women’s College, says the school has seen a 10 percent increase in enrollment. The bachelor’s degree in business administration is the most popular program. “You’ve got to be nimble,” she says. “If you are employed in a corporation and your corporation is downsizing and you are still there, you are doing lots of jobs now. You are asked to be a broader and deeper employee.”

Metro State’s Sandoval-Lucero says the top six programs at that school are psychology, business management, behavioral science, criminal justice, accounting and history. “Most employers like liberal arts and science graduates because they know how to write, they can use a computer, they have communications skills and the employer can train them,” she says. “As for business management, accounting and criminal justice, those lead directly to specific careers.”

Nimbleness is important for the unemployed, too. In April, Cindy Sheets was laid off from her job as a staff accountant at a fire and security system company. She had been attending The Women’s College part time, and switched to full time. She’s not looking for another accounting job. “I definitely want to transition into business, more operations and administration,” she says. “I’ve been in accounting for 20 years.” She expects to earn her bachelor’s degree in business in summer 2010.

Paying for college is another challenge. The tightening credit markets mean fewer home equity loans, a once-popular way to pay for education.

Also, companies are eliminating or decreasing their tuition reimbursement benefits. No matter, Sheets says. “There are student loans and scholarships out there. I took out student loans. I figure when I get the big job I will pay those puppies off.”

At DU’s University College, Pearson says half the undergraduates are majoring in leadership and organization studies. Among graduate programs, environmental policy and management is popular, and so is strategic human resource management. “Every company has HR,” she says.

Patrick Walsh is a graduate student and a career changer studying for a dual degree in environmental policy and management and organizational and professional communication. He is also studying for a certificate in Alternate Dispute Resolution and plans to work as a mediator. He used to attend DU part time while working for churches. A year ago his job moved to Houston, and although he tried working remotely and moved to Houston briefly, he soon returned to Colorado. “I ended up having to quit, right when the economy tanked,” he says.

He now attends University College full time and expects to complete the degrees in November. He hasn’t landed a job yet, but he has been on many second and third interviews. “I think it’s a wonderful thing to go back to school,” he says. “I was the runner-up on so many of these jobs. The University of Denver has a very strong reputation.”

Enrollment in CCU’s MBA program has grown 25 percent in the last year, Moroney says. The Project Management Certificate, a 12-credit-hour certificate, is also seeing increased interest. Education is growing too, and enrollment in the Master of Arts in curriculum and instruction program is up about 30 percent this year. CCU also launched a Licensed Practical Nurse to Associate of Science in Nursing program, designed for LPNs who want to apply for Registered Nurse licensure.

At CSU-Global, the bachelor’s degree and the master’s degree in organizational leadership are the most popular programs. “The ability to think critically and navigate a complex world, and the ability to be a leader and participate as a leader, those skills are becoming more important,” Puzziferro says.

Organizational leadership is also big at Regis, in its Master’s of Science degree. Also, Husson says, people are returning to school for degrees in education.

The future 

The Women’s College will soon launch its Center on Women’s Entrepreneurship. “Women have been looking at entrepreneurship as a way to engage more fully in the world of work,” Gangone says. “You put on top of that a recession where people are losing their traditional employment within corporations and other entities, and it gives individuals the incentive to take the risk to fulfill that dream.” This fall the school will launch a certificate program in entrepreneurship.

UC Denver plans to open a new component to the business school, the Graduate Career Connections center, in the fall. The new office will help match students with career opportunities, and also give students an opportunity to network with potential employers.

CU Boulder will launch one-hour toolbox workshops this fall. The sessions are designed for people who are debating whether to go back to school, and will offer topics such as time management and choosing a major.

Metro State recently announced it would launch a master’s degree program, but that program is in the planning stages.

Jobs and programs change, McCallin says, but students will continue to look for knowledge that will help them succeed. “You need to focus on critical job skills, how to think critically, how to be flexible, how to acquire information, a lot of skills as opposed to specialized knowledge,” she says.
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