For 35 years, the Program for Experienced Learners (PEL) at Eckerd College inspired students aged 24 and up, giving them hope to better their lives. The college announced on September 9, however, that demand for high-tech online education has led to the end of new enrollments for these special high-touch classroom experiences.
“Our mission always has been to provide personalized education for undergraduate students,” said Eckerd College President Don Eastman. “We do an extraordinary job, but lifestyle changes and market demands have made it much more attractive for adult students to take courses online.”
There are more than 5,300 bachelor’s degree graduates of the liberal arts program that offered night and weekend courses in St. Petersburg and Tampa. According to the college, since February 2013, they have introduced new blended course formats that have included online components, they have altered marketing and outreach programs, and have added focus areas of study, but enrollments continued to decline.
“We sincerely regret the impact this will have on our current students,” said Eastman. “We will do all we can to ease the transition for them.”
One woman who graduated from the program and who worked as an intern for Eckerd while she was in school said, “I’m heartbroken that it will be closing. It gave all of us who had to work full time and still wanted to get that degree [a way to] further ourselves in life.”
Bev Kelley, 68, of Pass-a-Grille started her degree at age 43 and finished at 53 in 2003. She majored in human development, or psychology.
“The beauty of the whole program was that you saw people face-to-face in a very small class,” she said. “Typically 15. We would break into groups of like three to five and talk about the issues then come together and make little presentations while we were in class.”
For her, classes met once-a-week at night for five hours from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
One of her teachers realized that students were arriving to their campus class stressed out after rushing from their daytime commitments.
“Her theory was you were huffin’ and puffin’ behind the wheel so in order to calm down, she would sometimes have the classroom half lit with music from Out of Africa playing. It would just immediately calm people down.”
In describing her instructors, she said, they were all “just beautiful people who cared so deeply about the subjects they were teaching.”
The program helped a lot of people, she said.
“All the people at Eckerd convinced all of us who were not sure we were smart enough to go to college, they said, ‘Of course you are.’ And, we were. They made sure we knew,” said Kelley. “I wasn’t college material in high school. I got married right out of high school and I put my husband through college.”
After a divorce and several other major life events, she decided it was her turn.
“It’s OK to make plans,” she said. “Just don’t plan results.”