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On the fast track
Accelerated programs gain popularity with students' busy lifestyles


September 14, 2012

When Laura Bray decided to pursue her master’s degree in 2002, she was working full time for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development and juggling a heavy extracurricular schedule. But the urban redevelopment advocate recognized that an MBA was necessary to advance her career, so she enrolled in Marquette University’s accelerated MBA program.

"I only had class once a week so it seemed doable," Bray says. "It was intense, but I knew it wasn’t forever."

Whether it’s a master’s or an undergraduate degree, more and more older adults are discovering that accelerated degree programs are an excellent opportunity to return to school without totally disrupting their work or family commitments. The average age of students in accelerated programs is 33 to 38 years old.

Although some Milwaukee area colleges like Concordia University have offered accelerated college programs since the late 1980s, the concept has grown increasingly popular in recent years.

Convenience is one of the primary reasons nontraditional students are pursuing degrees through an accelerated program, according to Ann Rice, director of Concordia University’s Green Bay Center.

"Most of the students in our accelerated program work full time," says Rice. "They’re married, they have kids. They have other responsibilities, and an accelerated program more easily aligns with their schedules."

Paul Eggers, lead enrollment adviser for the College of Adult and Graduate Studies at Wisconsin Lutheran College, agrees.

"Wisconsin Lutheran’s accelerated program was designed specifically with working adults in mind," he says. The college began offering its accelerated degree completion program three years ago, which allows working professionals to complete a bachelor’s degree in business management and leadership in as little as 20 months.

Eggers says the majority of students enrolled in Wisconsin Lutheran’s accelerated program are pursuing their degree to improve their opportunities for career advancement or to expand job prospects beyond their current field of expertise.

"The current economy has motivated a lot of people," he says. "People who have been laid off are retooling in an effort to re-enter the workforce."

Essentially, an accelerated degree program breaks down the material covered in a traditional semester-long class over a four-to-six-week period for undergrads, or six to eight weeks for graduate-level courses. While classes only meet once a week, typically for four hours, there is a great deal more work beyond the classroom, from reading and writing assignments to online discussion forums.

"We tell students in our accelerated program to expect 15 hours a week in study time outside of the classroom," Rice says.

Students enrolled in accelerated degree programs can expect to complete their bachelor’s degree within 15 to 24 months, depending on their major and the number of credits they need to graduate. Those enrolled in an accelerated master’s program can finish in as little as 12 to 18 months.

The fast-tracked timetable appealed to Mark Gimla, a teacher for the Elmbrook School District, who earned his master’s in instructional technology from Cardinal Stritch in 18 months.

"It was so convenient," says Gimla. "I don’t know anybody who goes through a traditional program anymore."

Since they first became available, accelerated degree programs in the Milwaukee area have grown to encompass a variety of majors from business administration to criminal justice to human resources. More recently, local colleges and universities have begun expanding their accelerated curriculums to include health care-oriented majors like health care management and RN-to-BSN programs.

"Based on feedback from prospective students, we’re looking at expanding our accelerated program to include majors with a health care focus," Eggers says.

Flexibility is another reason nontraditional students choose accelerated degree programs, says Judy Borawski, director of graduate admissions for Mount Mary College.

"Our accelerated courses are offered one night a week or on Saturdays," she explains. "It gives students the flexibility to work through the program at a pace that matches their schedule and needs."

Many campuses also offer students enrolled in an accelerated degree program the option to take college courses online.

At Wisconsin Lutheran, students in the accelerated program can complete all of their credits in an online environment or choose a combination of both online and classroom courses. Concordia University offers a similar e-learning format.

"Accelerated programs are definitely designed with the working adult in mind," says Rice. "The coursework is tailored to the needs and capabilities of the adult learner."

Area colleges like Concordia and Cardinal Stritch University also have satellite campuses in outlying cities like Waukesha and Kenosha, as well as neighboring states including Iowa and Minnesota.

Gimla attended class off-campus at Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, which was a shorter commute from his Milwaukee home than Cardinal Stritch’s Glendale campus. (The university has since opened a satellite campus in Brookfield.)

"They really reach out to people," Gimla says.

Like traditional college programs, accelerated programs allow students to transfer previously earned credits to help reduce the overall number of credits they need to graduate. But, accelerated degree programs also value real-world experience, allowing students to convert learning that occurs outside the classroom into college credit. Students must demonstrate the knowledge they’ve gained from volunteer and on-the-job experiences by documenting their learning through a portfolio process, Eggers explains.

"We place a strong emphasis on direct application of the course material to the students’ career," he says.

While the portfolio process varies from school to school, it typically involves submitting professional training documentation, writing life experience essays and attending portfolio workshops.

"It’s a great way for students to earn their elective credits," says Eggers.

Enrollment requirements for accelerated degree programs also vary among area colleges and universities. At Mount Mary College, students must be 24 or older with two years of full-time work experience. There’s no age requirement for enrolling in Wisconsin Lutheran’s accelerated degree completion program, but students must have 50 transferable credits, two years of professional work experience and a grade point average of 2.0 or higher. Most schools require prospective students to complete basic math and writing competency assessments to make sure they can handle the coursework they’ll encounter in their accelerated classes.

"We want our students to have those core competencies so they can complete their coursework," Rice explains. "Otherwise, we encourage them to enroll in an intro level mathematics or writing class so they’ll be better prepared."

This story ran in the August 2012 issue of: