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August 9, 2005

Making the jump from a community college to a bachelor’s degree granting institution can be daunting, especially for non-traditional students. It’s a bit easier when all they have to do is cross the parking lot.

Beginning this fall, that will be the case for many in the first class at Robert B. Miller College, in Battle Creek, Michigan. The private college is housed in a building Kellogg Community College once used for administration. Students can get their associate degree at Kellogg, and then, if they want, their bachelor’s at Miller. Arthur Angood, a Kellogg trustee, is Miller' president. “We asked people in the community what they needed,” Angood said, “and this is what they said.”

While many public colleges and some private institutions offer courses at two-year college campuses, Miller stands out for being created as a private institution for that purpose.

Angood used to be chairman of the board at the Miller Foundation. About five years ago, the foundation began contemplating taking on a big project in honor of its 40th anniversary, which came in 2003. Angood said Battle Creek residents constantly expressed interest in having Kellogg become a four-year institution, but its charter will not allow more than the first two college years. So the Miller Foundation commissioned a survey to see if there was interest in a bachelor’s degree granting college in Battle Creek.

“We heard from hundreds of people who said, ‘I’ve got some college, but I have family or a job, and I can’t travel,’” said Angood, who worked in public education for 30 years. So the foundation took the information to colleges in the region to see if any wanted to set up an arm in Battle Creek, but they declined. The Miller Foundation itself put forward $1.6 million, and the Binda Foundation, another local organization, gave $300,000, “and we decided to do it,” Angood said. The foundation appointed nine trustees to govern the college.

Miller also has several partnerships with other colleges. The most obvious, of course, is the one with Kellogg, whose campus Miller shares. Miller students can use Kellogg’s library, gym, and computer labs. (While Miller has computers, it doesn't have a library or gym yet.)  Most important, Miller’s location couldn’t be better for students who want a seamless transition from Kellogg. Many of the over 1,000 applicants Miller received needed more credits to reach the 60 required to enroll in Miller, which teaches only junior- and senior-level students. So the Miller staff referred them to the place across the parking lot, where they can get those last few credits. “We’ve picked up about 400 credits from their referrals,” said Kathy Tarr, the vice president for institutional advancement at Kellogg.

This fall, Miller is set to offer several majors, including business administration, and elementary education. The dozen instructors, including the president himself, will enroll about 100 students on the first day of classes,  September 6, most interested in pursuing a degree in education and then getting teacher certification. Miller hopes to accommodate 1,000 students in about five years.

As a brand new institution, the college is not accredited, so it set up a relationship with Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, to ensure that its curriculum was approved by the Michigan Department of Education. Graduates will be able to pursue teacher certification, but Aquinas will have to endorse their candidacy. Miller has begun the road to accreditation already, but will not be able to offer federal financial aid until the process is complete, which will be at least a few years. At $275 per credit, or about $8,400 per year for a full course load, and no application, parking, or administrative fees, Miller is less expensive than most private colleges.

Anjanette Webb, 36, takes care of her five children while her husband works the night shift as a tool and die maker at a local factory. She graduated from Kellogg in May, and was determined to enroll in Miller and become a teacher. She was one of about 30 students who took part in one of two six-week summer courses at Miller. Webb would have liked to have financial aid, but she said Miller picked up the tab for the summer program, and her tuition for the coming year has already been cut in half by money the college is simply giving her.

“In the beginning, I was pretty worried,” Webb said. “My husband I saved money. But now it’s like I have to go, it’s like free money.” Webb’s summer course, an introduction to education, included 40 hours of work inside a local school. All classes at Miller will require one hour of work or service in the community for each credit hour earned. Gloria Robertson, chair of the college's School of Education, said the introductory course was based on what local school officials said they considered in hiring new teachers. Beyond classroom experience, the officials often said they wanted teachers who knew technology. Thus, the second class Miller offered for the summer: technology for the classroom teacher.

Robertson, a former elementary school principal at a special needs school, came out of retirement to work at Miller. “We have teachers and parents in the community working together,” she said. “I think they’re both getting a new perspective on each other. Teachers aren’t the only ones seeing a new side of parents. Angood said Miller students are generally between 25 to 35 years old, and Robertson said some students told her their kids get a kick out of “seeing mommy doing homework.”

Miller still has years to go for accreditation, but Sue Wittick, higher education coordinator for the Michigan Department of Education, said they “seem to be moving quickly.” Wittick said some of the biggest challenges might come in evaluating the expertise of faculty members, some of whom have not taught at a college before. So far, anyway, the first Miller students are thrilled. “It’s like a family,” Webb said. “Everyone knows my name, and they want to help me reach my dream.”

 

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