Puerto Rico’s Sistema Universitario Ana G. Méndez attracted thousands of adult students to an accelerated degree program, AHORA, by stressing the kind of flexibility and practicality that one would expect from a program called “now.”
But when administrators and faculty started considering how to expand into the continental United States they realized it wouldn’t work to simply shift their program a few hundred miles north.
“Offering a program all in Spanish wouldn’t do the best for our students and there are plenty of English programs out there,” says Luis J. Zayas, the university system’s vice president for U.S. and Latin American affairs. “We had to think about how to serve a Spanish-speaking population living in a predominantly English-speaking place.”
What they created is what Zayas and his colleagues believe to be the first-ever discipline-based, dual-language postsecondary degree program. Both languages are used equally in instruction and assignments; faculty and staff are all bilingual; and, Zayas says, “the courses are designed so that you can have a native English speaker or a native Spanish speaker go through with the same level of comfort."
In its sixth year of operation in Orlando and its fourth in the Miami suburb of Miramar, the mainland AHORA program has an enrollment totaling 1,700 and has awarded 373 bachelor’s degrees and 303 master’s degrees. Enrollment numbers continue to grow, and a third location, in Tampa, is set to open in the fall. Online courses are also in development.
The effort is the result of an unusual partnership. Ana Méndez, a private nonprofit university system, teamed up with Regis University, a nonprofit in Denver with extensive experience in online education for adults, to create AGMUS Ventures, a for-profit unit through which they run these programs. It is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which doesn't normally oversee programs in Florida, but which is the accreditor for Puerto Rico.
Almost all classes are scheduled for nights or weekends, and students are almost exclusively working adults over the age of 23. Most are more comfortable speaking and writing in Spanish than in English. Though they may have earned college credit or even a degree in their home countries, Zayas says, they “don’t know the language well enough” to do well in courses that are offered exclusively in English.
Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, could point to only one program like Ana Méndez’s – a dual-language associate’s degree in Miami Dade College’s honors college. But the students in that program, which enrolled its first class in 2006, are generally traditional-age and headed toward transfer.
While rare in higher education, the dual language model of instruction is more established in American elementary and secondary schools, where it’s sometimes used to help students whose families speak another language learn English, but is often used to develop fully bilingual students.
Ana Méndez’s Spanish-language and dual-language courses are based on Regis University’s modular curriculum for accelerated adult learning. Regis’s New Ventures arm -- which helps other colleges and universities adapt to their cultures and course offerings – worked with Ana Méndez officials in the mid-1990s to create the Spanish-language program used on its home campuses. It now enrolls more than 8,000 students.
The two universities each made an initial investment of $500,000 and share profits equally. The operation’s annual budget has grown to $13 million.
The chair of AGMUS’s board of directors, Thomas R. Kennedy, who is also CEO of New Ventures and Regis’s vice president for institutional partnerships, describes the program as “not just a bilingual program where you help Spanish-speaking people learn English” but “a wonderful way to bring people along in both languages.”
The campuses offer degrees that are awarded by Ana Méndez’s three universities – Universidad del Este, Universidad del Turabo and Universidad Metropolitana. There are offerings in education, criminal justice, psychology, business, nursing and hotel management, among other fields.
Kennedy said that the average student is about 35 years old. In Orlando, the enrollment is 70 percent female. In Miramar, it’s about 60 percent female. These students, like so many other adult learners, are “really pulling themselves up, to create a better life,” Kennedy says. “They’re fulfilling a dream.” In all, 93 percent of students receive financial aid of some kind.
For native Spanish speakers, the dual-language curriculum helps ease them into English. For native English speakers, the curriculum helps them ease into Spanish. Courses generally meet for five weeks and the four-hour class sessions alternate languages each week. When a week’s class is in English, all the reading and other assignments to prepare are in English. When a class is set to be in Spanish, all work is in Spanish.
Students aren’t required to buy books or other materials; they receive a module booklet that includes their reading and assignments. Other resources are available through course Blackboard sites and a web-based virtual library where students can access journal articles and e-books. Many modules are in the process of being revised.
Syndia Nazario-Cardona, director of the Miramar campus, describes the adjunct instructional workforce as “facilitators, because what they’re doing is facilitating the learning process” rather than simply lecturing for the entirety of a four-hour class session. Many have day jobs as high school or college teachers or professors.
Alexander Easdale, a facilitator who teaches social sciences and history courses, worked as a high school teacher and college-level tutor before joining Ana Méndez but still went through extensive training before entering the classroom two and a half years ago.
“This university does a very good job screening and training professors before sending them out there,” he says. “Unlike a lot of the other people, I haven’t been a teacher my whole life, so I went through numerous workshops before leading a class.” His day job is in fundraising at a Hispanic-serving nonprofit.
His classes “are in many ways similar to a graduate school seminar,” he says. “As opposed to a traditional format of the lecture, where you stand in front of the class and teach, this is a mix of activities.” Though he may lecture a bit at the start of a session, classes generally include discussions, group projects and oral presentations.
Though he alternates between Spanish and English from week to week, “because most students are Latino and most are immigrants, and their stronger language tends to be Spanish,” Easdale says he “tends to have to push them a lot harder when it’s English week.” He’ll occasionally have a student whose English is stronger than his or her Spanish.
Students’ language struggles are most apparent “when you have a student one week and they can’t shut up and the next they’re not talking at all.” It’s his job, he says, “to help students lose that fear of speaking the language.”
The vast majority students at the Orlando campus are of Puerto Rican heritage. The Miramar campus has students and faculty from 25 countries.
Most students, Kennedy says, “would never have gone to another college or university … where it’s all English or just a smattering of Spanish and not a welcoming situation for them.” The dual-language program offers them an opportunity to develop language skills while learning subject area content, rather than having to first spend months or years in a non-credit ESL class before being able to work toward a degree.
Though there are some students who are more comfortable with English than with Spanish, he concedes they’re a very small group. “We don’t have very many people at all who are English speakers trying to bring up their Spanish,” he says. “We have a very high percentage of students who speak Spanish at home.”
Roxanna Pietri, associate director for corporate relations, thinks the major factor deterring students with strong English skills from enrolling at Ana Méndez is price. “If a student in Orlando or South Florida is comfortable speaking English, it’s easier and cheaper for them to go to a state university than [it is] to pay more for a credit with us,” she says.
Undergraduate credits cost $310 and graduate credits are $360 each. At Miami Dade, for instance, associate's degree credits are $67.60 and bachelor's degree credits cost $74.95 each.
Applicants are generally required to have attempted at least 24 college credits, but if a student were to take the full 126 credits needed to earn an Ana Méndez bachelor’s degree at the institution, it would cost a total of $39,060. That's more than a degree from a Florida public institution, but less than full freight at many other privates. Students without prior college experience or who are under the age of 23 can start out by taking eight eight-week transitional courses.
Easdale says that the focus on developing language skills has yielded some “unbelievable” results in just the five- or eight-week period of a semester. “I give my students good, honest feedback. I tell them, don’t expect roses in the feedback I’ve given,” he says. “And it makes a difference in the end.”
Zayas says he’s received “lots of anecdotal feedback from the students that it was really the only way they could have done it – they couldn’t have done a whole degree in English.”
Despite its success, AGMUS has resisted rapid expansion. “We’ve been approached by some investors but so far we’ve not done anything along those lines,” Kennedy says. “They see dollar signs. But the number one priority is not just making money. The number one priority is serving our students.”
But Kennedy and Zayas have met with administrators at colleges in New York, Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Texas and the Washington, D.C., area who might want to work with AGMUS to introduce their own dual-language programs. “We know there are universities that would benefit from the possibility of turning some of their own programs into dual-language,” Zayas says. “There really has to be a strong desire of students, a way to reach out to students who aren’t being served, a space – not only a building but also a space within the college -- for these programs, and hiring or having a bilingual staff.”
Kennedy adds that while AGMUS sees “so many opportunities, we need to pick and choose what’s going to make the most sense. We can’t reach all the students out there who need us.”
He’s expected to see competitors crop up, but none have. “By now, we thought the University of Phoenix or someone would’ve picked up on this,” he says. “I don’t think they know how to fully reach out to the Hispanic population yet, but there's a whole lot of it that needs to be served.”