A fundamental shift in how a college degree can be earned took place at Southwestern College 20 years ago. And while making higher education accessible to working adults now seems a natural extension of the college’s mission, at the time the idea of a Professional Studies program seemed a daring proposition.
Carl Martin, president of Southwestern College from 1988 to 1998, smiles as he thinks back to how Professional Studies came to be. He recalls when managers from GE Aviation (which had a plant near Winfield) encouraged Southwestern to start a program that would allow its employees to earn their degrees while continuing to work. The need was increasing as more of its workforce was unable to fulfill a desire to further their education while earning a living.
Then Marvin Hafenstein, who had worked for the Sunbeam Corporation before he relocated to Burden, Kan., paid Martin a visit.
“Marvin came into my office and offered to simply volunteer to help Southwestern create a learning experience for adult learners,” Martin recalls. “He saw the importance of an educated workforce and he also understood how difficult it was for people who were employed full time to realize those education degrees.”
But while Martin saw great potential in Hafenstein’s eagerness to make an adult learning center a success, some were skeptical that it could work. Faculty on main campus was leery. After all, this model differed radically from the way things were done in the residential college setting. It would involve affiliate faculty, adult learners, and accelerated learning – concepts foreign to a college serving traditional students since it began in 1885. But after listening to other colleges’ success stories, the Board of Trustees joined administrators in supporting a movement in education happening around the nation.
“There has been a commitment to excellence and that’s what was the genesis,” says Martin.
Hafenstein brought his background in business and manufacturing to higher education, focusing the early efforts of Professional Studies on business, supply chain management, and manufacturing technology.
“Marvin wanted the courses to be very career-focused and to be taught by practitioners, so he hired many affiliate faculty members who worked in industry,” said Dick Merriman, current president of Southwestern College.
The first location offering such courses was opened in downtown Winfield in 1994. But as popularity for adult learning grew so did the need for space in a more highly-populated area. So Hafenstein worked on acquiring about one-third of the space in a building on Rock Road in Wichita. The doors to the East Wichita Professional Studies Center at Pawnee and Rock opened in 1996.
“When I first started the building stopped at the bathrooms at the south
end of the building,” recalls Nancy Morse, Professional Studies assistant registrar. “There were three of us who worked here. We all sat at desks in the south lobby, so we were right there with the students, which was fun. We got to know the students really well.”
“We gobbled up the building as leases of other occupants expired,” says Merriman. “We unveiled the Jinx and Moundbuilder classrooms and the neighboring offices on the north end during a Board of Trustees meeting. When we finally had the entire building for our use, considering how rinky-dink things looked at the start, that was a great moment.”
In 1998 Professional Studies expanded to the west side of Wichita, stretching the reach of the college to new markets. That location would close in the summer of 2013, but not before centers were placed at McConnell Air Force Base, Fort Riley, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City. However, technology began to change the pace in which students were learning, creating a demand for more than just on-ground education
Procedures have changed drastically since Nancy Morse began her career at Professional Studies 17 years ago. In that time she’s held positions as an office manager and has worked in financial aid and the registrar’s office, witnessing the evolution first hand.
“Our students would bring their financial aid material here and then it would have to be taken to main campus,” said Morse. “Either someone would physically drive it, mail it, or we had a courier service. We all shared one email address at the time.”
In the beginning, adult learners were offered mostly six-week classes at Professional Studies locations during the day, evenings, and on the weekends. But as the Internet grew in popularity, Southwestern College saw the growing need for flexibility for its students,
who were balancing their education, jobs, and families.
Southwestern used its 2001 accreditation review by the Higher Learning Commission not only to extend its accreditation but also to request to begin offering online degrees. The permission was granted and Professional Studies began offering the first online degree program in pastoral studies.
“From there, our online offerings grew and grew,” said President Merriman. “The shift, though, was not driven by SC or by any other institution. It was driven by the preferences of adult learners. They clearly very much prefer the flexibility of online learning to the night school model that PS started out with.”
Offering online courses also paved the way for Professional Studies to create a relationship with military learners, beginning with the Army when it was selected as an eArmyU partner. And with the east location just a half mile away from McConnell Air Force Base, Professional Studies also made the educational needs of airmen a priority.
It was selected as one of only 10 institutions for the initial pilot program of the Air Force’s Air University Associate-to-Baccalaureate Cooperative (AU-ABC). The college also became a member of the National Association of Institutions for Military Education Services (NAIMES), participating in professional association meetings. In addition, more staff members with military backgrounds were added to the staff to further invest in military culture.
“Our military initiative and focus was multi-pronged and it grew over time,” says Karen Pedersen, vice president for Professional Studies from 2000 to 2011.
It was a focus that has paid off. Professional Studies was named a Best for Vets College, Military Friendly School, and Military Advanced Education Top School for 2015. Today military learners make up roughly two-thirds of Professional Studies students.
“Growing from literally no military learners to being in the top 50 institutions receiving military tuition assistance was an incredible accomplishment,” says Pedersen. “I remember the day when it was announced that SC was in the 30s. At that point, I knew we had made it.”
Many would say the success of Professional Studies over the past two decades is simply its willingness to respond to the wants and needs of its learners. The flexible online model, offering adult learners the chance to earn their degrees on their own time schedules has been well received.
“All of my classes were online and that gave me the chance to continue to use the disciplines I learned in the military by blocking out several hours each day and dedicating it to doing my classwork and assignments,” says Greg Cole, 2010 Professional Studies graduate and Wichita business owner.
The continued progression of Professional Studies is evident today in its offerings of new and improved programs in the fields of business and technology as it continues to respond to market needs. Its articulation agreements with community colleges across the region offer students a seamless transition to earning their bachelor degrees. The relationship with the military has grown with a partnership with the Defense Acquisition University, allowing its workforce members the opportunity to transfer and apply DAU credits toward their college degree. And its Organizational Partnership program offers training for employees of area businesses. It brings Professional Studies full circle, paving a way for adults to realize their academic dreams the way leadership hoped it would 20 years ago.
“I think the college’s sincere interest is helping adults achieve their dreams and have better lives has set us apart from many of our competitors,” Merriman said. “We’re in it for the right reason.”