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Program Offers College Without the Long Commute

Education: University Center in Valencia lets advanced-degree students take courses from seven far-flung campuses, sparing them a daunting drive.

September 16, 2002|STEPHANIE STASSEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lectures and the homework didn't keep Susan Ledoux from getting her teaching credential at Cal State Northridge, but 45 miles of freeway gridlock and the endless hunt for campus parking did.

A new program closer to home changed her mind. She enrolled at a Valencia community college, where seven universities offer an array of degrees and credential programs.

"CSUN is a huge campus and the drive home at night after class would have been impossible," said Ledoux, who lives in Green Valley, about 25 miles north of Valencia. "I definitely wouldn't be getting my credential now if I had to go there."

The College of the Canyons' pioneering University Center has attracted about 1,000 students who are earning advanced degrees on its campus. In spartan temporary quarters, the seven universities offer more than 20 degree programs ranging from bachelor's to doctoral degrees, as well as teaching and school administrative credentials.

Tuition is about the same as students would pay if they were on the four-year campus. Diplomas bear the name of the university as if classes were taken on the home campus, instead of in Valencia.

The courses are attractive to those who work or live in Santa Clarita, a city of 158,000 that has experienced a recent growth spurt in housing and industry yet lacks a major university. Although Cal State Northridge is 20 miles away, traffic congestion can make the trip an hour each way.

About 15 of the state's 108 community colleges have partnerships with universities, but few have the broad reach of College of the Canyons, said Chancellor Tom Nussbaum of the California community college system.

"It fits people's work patterns and gives them access to four-year degrees. It's a progressive concept, and I applaud them for being on the forefront," Nussbaum said.

The arrangement is convenient for Dave LeBarron, whose office is 150 feet away from the University Center.

Students Grateful

LeBarron, principal of a small high school program housed at College of the Canyons, said he had planned for a few years to get a doctoral degree in educational leadership but didn't want to drive to UCLA or USC to do it. To earn a master's degree four years ago, he drove more than 90 miles round trip from Palmdale to Cal State Northridge.

"It was horrible. The semester would start and I'd be excited, but by the end of the semester I'd be saying, 'Just shoot me. I can't take this,' " he said.

"If it weren't for this, I wouldn't be [getting my doctorate] now. It would be another seven, eight, nine years," said LeBarron, who will begin classes next month toward a doctoral degree from Nova Southeastern University of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I have two small kids at home and I don't want to be away from home any more than I have to."

The University Center, which began offering courses two years ago, had been on the drawing board for many years, said College of the Canyons President Dianne Van Hook.

She first encountered the concept in the early 1980s when, as an administrator at Santa Ana College, she attended a meeting at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. She noticed a sign on the Saddleback campus saying Cal State Fullerton and learned that the university was offering upper-division classes in Mission Viejo.

When she came to College of the Canyons 14 years ago, Hook said, she had hoped to establish such a relationship with CSUN; but for a variety of reasons it didn't happen at that time. Finally in 1999, the Valencia college connected with Cal State Bakersfield; and since then, six other universities have joined the program. In addition to Bakersfield, Nova Southeastern and CSUN, they are Cal State Fresno, Woodbury University in Burbank, the University of La Verne and Chapman University in Orange. The center also has an English-language immersion program offered through ELS Language Schools.

Building Plans

The center's enrollment has grown so quickly that College of the Canyons officials plan to replace the 7,600-square-foot temporary building with a 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that would allow more universities to offer their courses in Valencia.

About 25 community members have organized a campaign to raise the $10 million needed for construction, which campus officials hope will start in the next 12 to 18 months, said campaign co-chairman Tom Lee, former CEO of Newhall Land & Farming.

To date $1.3 million has been raised, mainly from community college employees and area residents, Lee said. (Campus officials said as much as $2 million for infrastructure work will be funded from an $82.1-million college district bond that passed last November.)

"It's not an easy time to be out raising money, but we are very determined," said Lee. "The idea is so universally liked in the community that eventually we'll raise the money."

Although Nussbaum predicts that the University Center concept will expand to other community colleges, he sends a "signal of concern" since recent state budget shortfalls may cut funding for colleges. "We'll need to talk with the Legislature, the governor and the people of the state," Nussbaum said. "The concept is good; and personally, I think we ought to find a way to do it."

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