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Developing An Advantage

By Mark Green

Dr. Stephen Wilson leads a class discussion in a Bardstown associate class that was taking place at a local industry.

Replicating a successful formula at dozens of locations across the commonwealth, the Advantage program at Mid-Continent University, a small Baptist liberal arts school in Mayfield, is becoming a workforce-enhancing, hometown college education option for Kentucky communities.In April, more than 1,550 adults were taking college courses in 29 Advantage locations, most in Kentucky with others in southern Illinois. Another 20 groups begin Advantage classes this month.

The secret sauce is simple:
“We’ve removed the barriers that adults face when they want to return to college,” said Jackie Imhoff, vice president for adult programs at Mid-Continent U. “Many have given up on college because they couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

Work and family duties plus cost and lack of ready access to a school combine to keep many Kentuckians from pursuing the college education goals they set aside or never pursued in their younger days.

But MCU sends its Advantage program faculty to the adult student – teens need not apply – for accelerated classes one night a week in a local setting, oftentimes at their workplace. Three-credit-hour courses are completed each five weeks, and in 20 to 24 months – calendars include holidays, breaks and weather make-up dates – students earn an associate degree. If they begin with an associate degree, that same time period yields a bachelor’s degree.

“Every single class they need to graduate is in the evening … and the light bulb comes on,” Imhoff said.

It’s fully legit, too, accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the same entity that accredits the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville. Credits can transfer to other SACS-accredited institutions.

Norton Healthcare in Louisville hosts the largest operation. Advantage classes began there in 2007. To date, 38 Norton employees have graduated, 98 were active students in April and a new cohort is beginning this month, said Al Cornish, system vice president for learning and organizational development with Norton and its chief learning officer.

The degree program at Norton is in business management, which is Advantage’s primary and most-pursued program, Imhoff said. Tuition is $315 per credit hour, which puts a 60-hour program at $18,900. Advantage students, however, are eligible for and many receive assistance through the Kentucky Tuition Grant program for private colleges, she said.

For the 2009-2010 academic year, KTG awards range from $200 to $2,964, according to the program’s Web page.

Norton employees also can get up to $2,500 annually in tuition assistance as a workplace benefit, said Cornish, who is an Advantage program advocate.
“It is part of our leadership development process,” Cornish said of Advantage. “It also impacts our employee engagement and retention.”

Norton views the tuition assistance it has put toward Advantage as an investment that has a positive return, he said.

“We’ve had comments from employees that they would never have been able to complete their studies if it were not for this program,” Cornish said. Norton’s employees laud the convenience, he said, as well as the company financial assistance.

Adults-only education
Imhoff became an adult education advocate and administrator at the urging of her husband, Mid-Continent President Robert Imhoff.

“He bought into the adult education concept before I did,” she admits.
Advantage has grown vigorously. It went from 585 registrations in 2003 to 1,851 in 2009. And eight of nine registrants stay with the program, according to MCU’s most recent statistics. From 2003 to ’09, annual retention ranged from a low of 82.3 percent in 2006 to a high of 88.9 percent last year.

Meanwhile, according to projectonstudentdebt.org, Mid-Continent graduates finish a degree with $8,805 in student debt – third-lowest among the 24 Kentucky institution for which there was information.

Beyond sending faculty to the student, Advantage pursues an adults-only audience. Associate-degree applicants must be at least 22 years old, bachelor’s students must be at least 24. Younger students are not prepared for an accelerated presentation of material, while adults desire it. The typical Advantage student is in their late 30s, Jackie Imhoff said.

The formula MCU employs today began in the mid-1990s when Robert Imhoff was assigned to research the subject for Belhaven University, a Presbyterian school in Jackson, Miss., where he was vice president. Imhoff soon became president at Bethel University, another Presbyterian college in McKenzie, Tenn., and founded an adult ed program there. When it took off “like wildfire,” he enlisted help from his wife, who has a social work and public school teaching background.

After three years at Belhaven, they took the lessons of that experience to Mayfield when Robert Imhoff became president of MCU in 1999. They launched the Advantage program at the then-167-student school.

Since Mid-Continent is a Baptist school, a 20-course curriculum includes one to three classes such as Life of Christ or Foundation Issues of Life. The remainder are standard higher-ed and business fare such as English Composition, U.S. History, Business Math and Personnel Supervision.

The classes reflecting MCU’s religious orientation do not include proseltyzing but focus rather on values-based decision making, said Robert Imhoff.

MCU is leasing space in nearby Paducah for Advantage at present but recently purchased 20 acres along I-24 and has an architect designing a 45,000-s.f. building that will become the program’s “second face” when it is completed late next year.