About 6.4 million adults return to school every year to get a college degree. It isn’t easy. Most are juggling a full-time job and family obligations as well. It can often take two or more times as long to get a degree on a part-time basis, says Alberta Jaeger, assistant dean of the College for Working Adults at Raritan Valley Community College, in North Branch. "Many people are afraid to even start a program because they just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel," she says.

Raritan Valley is offering a program to help working adults who want to speed up the college process. The school’s College for Working Adults offers a special program that allows students to receive an associate’s degree in two-and-a-half years, only six months longer than the typical full-time associate’s program. This is the second year for the curriculum, which divides courses into three 10-week series each year rather than the usual two semesters.

The new semester begins on Friday, September 7. Call 908-253-6688 or E-mail to collegeforworkingadults@raritanval.edu for more information.

The program is unique in New Jersey, says Jaeger. While many universities do offer similar courses for students who are working toward a bachelor’s degree, she does not know of any other schools that offer the accelerated associate’s degree geared toward working adults. The only major now offered through the program is business administration. For people who want to go on to a four year program, the degree is fully transferable. "Raritan Valley has transfer agreements with more than 45 colleges and universities in New Jersey and across the country," says Jaeger.

Jaeger understands just how difficult it is to return to school as an adult. She returned to school while she was in her 20s, earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Rutgers University. "It took seven-and-a-half years," she says. "I really wish there had been a program like this available for me." She then obtained a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from Kean University.

Her own experience sparked her interest in adult education. She worked for a number of years as associate director of the Weekend College at the College of St. Elizabeth, in Morristown, before moving to Raritan Valley Community College in 1998.

"Adult students want a structured program," says Jaeger. "With time at a minimum, they want to know exactly what courses they need to take to get their degrees quickly." At the College for Working Adults, those needs are addressed from the beginning of the application process.

The college has put together a package of material on the program, including a video, at ( www.raritanval.edu/rvcc/frameset/prospective.com ) In the video, current students discuss their experiences in the program. Prospective students can use a link on the page to E-mail Jaeger for more information and an application. The application can be returned by fax and the $25 fee can be paid by credit card, so the busy working student does not have to take extra time to come to the college to apply.

Prospective students are required to take a placement test. You must be able to handle a college level English course to be accepted into the program, says Jaeger. "This isn’t too difficult," she says. "So far we’ve only had one applicant who had difficulty with this requirement." Math, however, is a different story. "I’d say 99 percent of our students need a developmental math course."

Jaeger says that the program "is very structured and very intense." Students take nine college credits every 10 weeks. Each 10-week series includes one class on Friday evening, a second Saturday class, and third class that is conducted online. Online supplementation is also available for the other two classes. Jaeger has several tips to make the experience a success.

Organization. Students must be very organized to juggle a full-time job, family responsibilities, and an almost full-time class schedule. Since no one can add more hours to the day, excellent organization can be the difference between success and failure in a program such as the College for Working Adults.

Study skills. Excellent study skills are needed to handle three classes at a time, says Jaeger. In addition to class time, she recommends students spend a minimum of an hour a day on homework and studying.

Time management. Time management involves handling all of the many and varied appointments, assignments, and other activities that college requires. It is extremely important when working in a program this intense, says Jaeger, and the more people in your life, the more difficult. "At least I didn’t have children when I went back to college," she says. "I really feel for the people who are juggling a career, school, and a family."

The typical student who applies to the college is "employed as an administrative assistant for a large corporation, wants to get ahead, and has found they cannot move up the ladder without a degree," says Jaeger. So far, more women than men have applied for the program. Out of the first class of 20 students, only six were men.

What makes the program successful is that the students quickly form a community to support and help each other. Says Jaeger: "It is a very concentrated program and the bond that the students form allows them to rely on each other."

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