It’s 7:50 a.m. on a brisk fall Saturday and campus, believe it or not, is abuzz with activity. Students are scurrying around, eyes half open, coffee in hand, making their way to class.
While the nearby dorms are starkly quiet with traditional students sleeping in after a Friday night of socializing, every Saturday a wide range of other students have driven in from throughout the region to keep the campus awake and alive. Single moms. Recently discharged veterans. People looking to switch careers. Those who would be considered “non-traditional students”—older than age 22 who aren’t straight out of high school—pack Xavier’s classrooms each weekend, giving the University a different look and feel than most days and creating what has become one of Xavier’s most popular and important educational investments, the Weekend Degree Program.
Marking its 15th anniversary this year, the program has not only grown to become the largest part of the University’s Center for Adult and Part-time Students (CAPS), but it’s also proven to be exactly what the University needed, both in terms of boosting lagging enrollment and meeting the needs of the community.
When enrollment of part-time students began declining in the early 1990s, former University President James Hoff, S.J., pushed for a new and creative way to meet the needs of those who wanted an education but had jobs and couldn’t make it to campus during the day or had families and couldn’t make it to campus in the evenings. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh had a program that held classes on the weekend, so Xavier used that as a model.
“It was a highly popular idea and very successful from the beginning,” says Mary Kay Meyer, who just stepped down as interim dean of the program and now serves as its director for advising services. “It was presented to [former academic vice president Jim] Bundshuh, and he was so impressed he put it in place right away. The program was started within six months when it should have taken 12 months to get going. We had five classes at first, two in the morning and three in the afternoon, and all of them were full. We had 80 students within the first year, and our headcount doubled for each of the first three years. We met our four-year enrollment goal within two years.”
Looking back, says Meyer, a number of reasons can be found for why the program was such a hit from the beginning—and why it’s still so popular today. One, it’s accelerated. Unlike traditional classes that meet for two hours a week for 16 weeks, the weekend classes meet for four hours a week for eight weeks. Thus, by taking two classes per eight-week term, that’s the same as a typical traditional student takes per semester. That means a weekend student who enrolls with no credits can graduate in four years. By taking classes just during the evening, a degree would take 11 years to complete.
“Plus, the students feel like coming on the weekends simply extends their work weeks instead of taking classes in the evenings, which makes their days a lot longer,” says Tricia Meyer, who took over as director for the program in June. “For them, it’s not as draining.”
Two, the program is highly accommodating to transfer credit, especially from two-year colleges. Students who start at two-year colleges can earn a Xavier degree through the program in two years. Three, it’s cheaper. The weekend program has the lowest rate of any part-time program in the region.
And, arguably the biggest reason, is that it meets a huge need in the area. Weekend program students are typically older, with an average age of 37. They work and have supervisory experience. And they want or need a degree for job security—or family security. Approximately 70 percent of weekend students are female, with many being single moms.
And, says Mary Kay Meyer, interest in the program is probably going to grow. In a bad economy there’s a surge in people who go back to school, some of whom want to switch careers and get into teaching. Due to the ongoing wars, the program has seen an increase in the number of veterans enrolling. And as the need for a college degree increases, more and more adults are overcoming their fear of going back to school.
“We used to have T-shirts printed up for the students that said, ‘I can survive anything for eight weeks,’ ” says Meyer. And many have.