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March 22, 2001

CGS employs nontraditional format to reach its nontraditional students

The University unit focused on nontraditional student education employed an unconventional format last week to reach its constituents.

With its first-ever on-line "town hall" meeting, billed as "CGS Live," the virtual audio-stream, interactive broadcast of an open meeting between College of General Studies administrators and students covered a variety of issues CGS faces as it refines its mission to serve the region's nontraditional student population.

Students asked questions ranging from why food isn't served in the Cathedral of Learning when night classes are scheduled to why CGS students are less respected by the University community than their traditional-aged College of Arts and Sciences counterparts.

Students in attendance questioned the fairness of computer fees and complained about parking availability for commuters and the dearth of upper-level courses offered during summer term. But several also recounted their positive experiences and their motives for pursuing degrees, certificates and leisure learning through CGS.

In planning the town-hall event, Dean Susan R. Kinsey said, "The dynamics of our region are changing, and resources are being concentrated on the 'spike' industries that will bring job growth to the area. As a consequence, CGS is re-examining the way it achieves its mission of outreach to the community."

Kinsey added that the town-hall structure was appropriate for an educational organization serving widespread age groups, students with widely varying work and class schedules and the divergent interests and needs of the nontraditional student population. "We can't ever get everybody in one place to meet and discuss issues, but through the town-hall format and concurrent and subsequent e-mail communications we can provide the opportunity for students at a distance to reach us and to hear what others in the college are saying," Kinsey said.

The off-site audience included 30 "hits" on the web site during the hour-long broadcast. Kinsey said she was encouraged enough by the response to schedule more town hall meetings.

Kinsey became CGS's dean 19 months ago, and two strategic plans later has helped arrest a protracted trend of falling enrollment.

"Both last fall and this spring, we've exceeded all targets for full-time, part-time, headcount and FTE (full-time equivalent) enrollments," Kinsey told the live and off-site audiences March 13.

She said that within the next five years enrollment could rise by as many as 1,000 students (headcount enrollment currently is 2,348 for this spring term), and that the college likely will add new majors and several certificate programs. The dean said the college is expected to expand the number of satellite locations, and may move toward offering more non-credit courses on-line for distance learners, thus expanding the college's student base.

Reflecting on the latest census information, Kinsey said that while the area's population had stabilized after years of shrinking, that population continues to be older on average.

"We're going to have to focus more and more on retraining for new jobs. There will be a larger number of the workforce seeking non-degree certification as part of the changing employment and industry picture. And our majors will be revised to accommodate the needs of the regional marketplace."

Of CGS's 13,000 alumni, the vast majority live and work in the western Pennsylvania area, she noted. Moreover, nontraditional-aged students are the fastest growing student population nationally. Nontraditional students will get more respect, she predicted, as they represent a larger part of the overall student population.

Among her accomplishments, Kinsey cited the establishment of a new certificate program in information sciences in conjunction with the School of Information Sciences; two planned certificate programs in accounting and e-commerce; an ongoing comprehensive re-evaluation of courses and majors; the expansion of the college's Computer Learning Center, the Summer Institute and the Office of Community and Continuing Education; the opening of a satellite site at Manchester Gardens on the city's North Side, and the appointment of a new associate dean for academic affairs, effective May 1.

"The new associate dean will be responsible for the revision of a number of majors; for strengthening the degree programs; for developing programs relevant to the area's spike industries, and for building on our integrated image campaign," Kinsey said, referring to the "A better life counts. Get the best education" promotional and advertising campaign.

Moreover, alumni giving, never a strong suit of CGS, has been successful beyond expectations, she said, fueled by the largest individual gift in the college's 43-year history.

Alumnus James McCarl and his family donated $650,000 to fund the establishment of the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success, which will be housed on the 4th floor of the Cathedral.

According to its director Sherry Brown, the center will be the first true home for CGS students. "The services offered at the McCarl center will help integrate the social and academic life of our students and will include career and financial aid counseling; and learning skills courses and success strategies all developed with an adult perspective. We will be able to provide services that are tailored to the individual."

Kinsey added that the McCarl center will house mini-offices for regional corporations that sponsor CGS students from among their employees. "It will be their home away from home for those employees," she said.

Brown said that a plan is underway to create a network of CGS alums who would act as mentors to current students and who might expedite internships at their employment places for qualified students . "We're gathering names now and we want as much input from students as we can get for what internships they might be interested in," Brown said.

Kinsey ended the town-hall event by asking two questions: What was the comfort level students had with courses that were totally or partially on-line? And how would CGS students and alumni react if the college were to change its name?

She asked that the CGS community think about these questions and contact her, suggesting that the questions may be topics for future town hall meetings.

–Peter Hart

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