Degrees of determination

Feisty Cambridge College sets a high standard for helping adults build on life experience and go back to school

The U-shaped group of seminar tables in a class here at Cambridge College sport as many soda cans and snack wrappers as notebooks. Students wolf down pizza slices, slouch a bit in their chairs, and talk back to the professor.

The professor, Paul Harrington, loves every minute of it - because he knows it means his students care.

These adults care so much about their education, in fact, that they are settling in - after a full day's work and perhaps a quick call home - for a 4-1/2-hour marathon of interactive learning. About 20 people come to this every-other-Tuesday class on negotiation and conflict resolution, a mix of lecture, discussion, and role play. Tonight, part of the much-needed comic relief is Mr. Harrington's brief rendition of an aria while students strategize how to hammer out an opera contract for the fictional Sally Soprano.

Some Cambridge College students wear jeans, others wear ties. Some are here for a master's degree, while others haven't yet earned a bachelor's. Their average age is 40. They are parents, immigrants, former drug addicts, teachers, managers. And all of them have found a place that gives them credit, literally, for lessons they've learned in the school of life.

When it started nearly 30 years ago as a program for urban teachers to earn master's degrees while continuing to work, it was among a small group of pioneering adult-learning institutions. Today, with nearly half the college population in the United States over the age of 24, higher education is increasingly looking to schools like Cambridge College to find out how it can supply the "lifelong learners" so desperately needed in an Information Age.

"Cambridge [College] is one of the leading institutions doing adult-learning work in the country; they are very innovative," says Pamela Tate, president of the Chicago-based Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

To keep classes convenient, the school has 18 satellite sites. Its main campus is a relatively new, four-story brick building with windows that showcase the towers of its much older and more-famous neighbor, Harvard University. On weekdays, the warm yellow hallways are virtually empty, the classrooms dark. But at night and on the weekends, it is a bustling place where people's aspirations are palpable.

"Accrediting agencies and the other colleges [now] truly understand that, for the bulk of the population, different modes of instructional delivery have to be created," says Eileen Moran Brown, the college's founder and president. "We've tried to create an academically excellent, time-efficient, cost-effective education.... More and more, other colleges are turning to us and saying, 'How do you do that?' "

The answer touches upon everything from entry requirements to relationships among faculty, students, and the community.

Reaching those left behind

Serving 2,200 students at any given time, the college targets populations that have been largely excluded from higher education. In 1998, African-Americans and Latinos made up 12 percent and 10 percent of the US population, respectively. Yet they accounted for only 7.5 and 4.7 percent of bachelor's degrees (and 4.7 and 3.4 percent of PhDs).

Cambridge College has an impressive record with these groups: It is the source of 25 percent of the master's degrees granted to African-Americans and Hispanics in Massachusetts (and 1 percent of these degrees nationwide), according to the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education. One-third of students earn less than $25,000 a year.

"I have said all along that college can't just be for the privileged and the lucky," says Ms. Brown. She sees the school in the middle of a continuum between traditional campuses and new 'virtual' universities. Most adults returning to education after a long hiatus don't have four years to wander. What they need, she says, is personal contact and "that initial spate of 'You can do it!' "

Putting the gate at the end instead of the beginning is one way Brown describes the college's approach. Rather than using measures like the SAT, "admissions is really a counseling process," she says. The college has developed a battery of tests and exercises to measure math, reading, and writing skills, but its focus is largely on determining what adults have learned from jobs, family, or community service - things that 18-year-olds might have to learn from a sociology textbook. Students can get into programs with what may seem like few qualifications by traditional measures, but before they get a degree, Brown says, they are held to high standards.

The combination of heavy academic, personal, and work demands can make the journey feel stormy at times, despite the school's many efforts to provide convenient and affordable classes and services. That's when bonds with students and faculty can be a lifeline. "It's like a support group, the whole class," says Maria Madrid, who earned a master's degree in education from the college in 1996 and went on to get her doctorate elsewhere. Like many other women, she found the going tough when her initially supportive husband and children got frustrated by what a return to school meant in concrete terms. "[On] days you feel like you won't be able to finish, those teachers, they come up to you and tell you, 'You can make it. What can I do for you?' "

It's not an attitude that comes naturally to every teacher, especially in an atmosphere where lessons cut across so many cultural lines. Brown recalls a professor from Colombia whose reaction to a struggling African- American student was, "She's not worth my time." Brown's response: It was his job to support every student's needs, and the school would help him do it - or he could leave. "He went from a racist attitude to being one of our most effective faculty members," she says.

Everyone's a teacher

Pervading the atmosphere is Brown's philosophy that "each of us has something to learn and something to teach." That's why Professor Paul Harrington, who himself got a degree from the school years ago, commutes across Massachusetts a few times each month to teach. "I've dealt with students who didn't have a lot of life experience, and [with them] there's a lot more didactic instruction - 'Here's the information, trust me,' " he says. He finds teaching (and learning from) adults more challenging. "I like the fight - these people have real-world everyday applications that they think of just like that."

Everyone bringing their life experience to the table has made diversity much more than a buzzword here. "Cambridge College was avant-garde; it was way ahead of its time in terms of dealing with the diversity issues ... not as a goody-two-shoes thing but in understanding a perspective that somebody else shares because of their life experience," says James Marini, who was a schoolteacher in the mid-1970s when he earned his master's degree. "Most schools, even today, find it difficult to deal with those issues except in an academic, cerebral way. At Cambridge College ... you also dealt with it in a visceral, human way," says Mr. Marini, now assistant superintendent of the Newton (Mass.) public schools.

Am I dreaming?

When Brown walks the halls here, interacting cheerily with students and staff without a hint of hierarchy, she is realizing a dream from her days as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia. She saw talent among her students that far outpaced their opportunity to develop it. The first step, she thought, was to improve city schools through teacher training.

As it was the heyday of Great Society ideals, government funding for teacher training wasn't too difficult to come by. When she came to Harvard University's School of Education in 1970 to earn a master's degree, she set up a program for teachers at Newton College of the Sacred Heart, and within a short time won a private grant that enabled it to grow into what is now Cambridge College. The school has expanded to offer master's degrees in management and counseling psychology, as well as bachelor's degrees.

With many of the students applying what they are learning at schools and community-service agencies, the school has built up a reputation for supplying leaders. One graduate recently became the first Southeast Asian teacher in a district where 25 percent of the students share that background. Another graduate who had served time for robbery became the first penal commissioner in the US to have been a former convict.

"It's a very important population for reclaiming our inner cities, and of course, problems identified with the inner cities are really national problems," Brown says.


Among students at Cambridge College ...

69% are women

41% are members of minority groups

14% speak English as a second language

34% earn less than $25,000 a year

77% receive financial aid

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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