Adult students go back for more. Debate over junior colleges aims at more rigorous courses

`WHEN you're in a profession, you can't get away from continuing education,'' says Chuck Borowiak, head of the gerontology, psychology, and human services programs at American River College here. And when you're talking about Californians returning to school for professional upgrading, or almost any purpose, you're talking about the community college system -- a sprawling complex of 106 two-year colleges in every corner of the state that embraces over a million full-time and part-time students.

Dr. Borowiak's school, American River, is a fairly representative community college, with more than 40 percent of its 20,000 students age 25 or older. It serves up a lively potpourri of courses. These include the very specific, career-linked offerings that Borowiak specializes in, the full array of traditional liberal arts subjects, usually taken by people who have their eye on a bachelor's degree, and a medley of avocational courses, ranging from ``jewelrymaking workshops'' to ``making money in the stock market.''

These latter ``community education'' or ``community service'' non-credit offerings draw a significant number of adult students. They also lie at the heart of a controversy that has gusted through the community college system in recent years. It's a complicated debate, that involves constricted education budgets, intricate funding formulas, and some redefining of the community college's role in this most populous of states.

Essentially, the legislature wants to be sure that state funds aren't underwriting frivolous courses of the scorned ``basket weaving 1A'' variety. To that end, the state has taken a hard look at the community colleges' non-credit offerings and has designated nine areas in which such courses can receive public funding. These range from remedial courses in English and math to citizenship training and short-term vocational training.

Strictly avocational or recreational subjects can still be offered, but they'll be paid for with student fees, not with state aid.

The goal is to ``improve the rigor of our offerings,'' says Allan L. Peterson, dean of the community college's office for program evaluation and approval.

A state-commissioned reassessment of the community college system, published last March, reaffirmed that preparing students to transfer to a four-year college, to earn an associate (two-year) degree, or to enter an occupation should remain the highest priorities of the community colleges.

And in fact those three purposes motivate most of the continuing education students at American River College. ``It's amazing to me, but when people come back, what they want is college credit,'' says Dick Luchessi, assistant dean of social and behavioral sciences. ``That's because if you go out and look for a job, that's what pays off,'' observes Borowiak.

A fairly typical continuing student is a woman, often recently divorced, who's searching for financial independence and, often, for a stronger sense of identity.

``For me, I will remember one student that came back. It was a miracle. She flunked my first exam dead flat,'' says Bob Striplin, a history professor. ``She was married to a man who handled all the purse strings and had five kids,'' he continues, ``and they all laughed at her. But she fought all that, became an `A' student, and went on to a degree in sociology.''

That kind of motivation has become a hallmark of the older student here, as elsewhere. ``I think that if you talk to my instructors and younger students, you'll find that the older students set the pace,'' says Borowiak.

American River has consciously set about to attract the more mature person in the last few years, seeing that segment of society as a ``population'' it could better serve. But that hasn't meant offering a lot of new courses, say faculty members. Rather it has involved better publicity for what's already being offered. And it hasn't meant expansion of recreational courses in arts and crafts. In this district, the demand for such courses is largely met through adult education offerings from local high schools, notes Steve Epler, dean of instruction.

Which isn't to imply that nothing new happens at a community college. American River has pioneered in such areas as paralegal training and gerontology. Dr. Luchessi points out that the school is planning a course in administrative law, an area of great interest locally, since Sacramento is the state capital.

Another popular area is real estate, and the college is breaking new ground by setting up internships with local firms, according to Dean Epler.

These job-related community college offerings, as well as the mainstream academic subjects, are likely to find more and more takers at a time when the number of younger college students is shrinking, more women are seeking career training, job specifications are rapidly changing, and people are increasingly open to mid-life career switches.

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