At UC Berkeley, a new period for extension programs

BERKELEY, Calif. (MCT) – In 2000, shortly before California’s high-tech economy went belly-up, the UC Berkeley Extension catalog was a 376-page book.

Today’s catalog is a lighter read, at just 144 pages, and listings of computer- and electronic engineering-related courses have dropped from about 90 pages to 10. With about 1,000 fewer courses than it had in 2002, the fee-financed UC Berkeley Extension owes more than $10 million in borrowed funds to its parent campus, a couple of blocks away on University Avenue.

And last year 34,601 students enrolled, about 27,000 less than in 2000-01. For the 116-year-old program, a page has turned, and administrators are looking forward to more efficiency and relevance in the off-campus classes targeted for working adults.

“Really, we’re entering a new period,” said James Sherwood, who recently completed his role as the program’s dean. His new role on the UC Berkeley campus is studying the future of extension programs.

“What California really needs to do is research what role continuing education is going to play in the future, particularly at a research-intensive institution like the University of California at Berkeley.”

Extension courses have tackled everything from agriculture to human resources, and even the diminished program at Berkeley offers a range of options. Students can learn whether Brie pairs well with Pouilly Fuisse wine or how to build a garden path.

But the program, which is supposed to sustain itself with fees, was geared heavily toward technology classes during the dot-com days. That strategy proved disastrous when tech companies started shutting down, leaving Extension with fewer students needing updates on the latest software and systems.

With at least a year generally needed to start new Extension courses, administrators had trouble adapting to the rapidly changing economy. The program kept spending money on courses that became harder sells with each corporate failure, said Judah Rosenwald, Extension’s finance chief.

“The letting go is tough, but that’s something we need to do better,” he said. “It’s basically being even more flexible, both in the bringing in and the letting go.”

Continuing-education schools have been popular moneymaking operations at colleges and universities nationwide. Business schools, including UC Berkeley’s Haas School, have set up lucrative executive-education programs, while the University of Phoenix and others among the newest breed of online, night and weekend schools have pressured traditional colleges with their MBA programs.

St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., faced with declining student interest, decided in 2005 to shut down most of its financially troubled School of Extended Education. Several other UC campuses also struggled to maintain their Extension schools as the economy crashed earlier this decade.

The Berkeley program once offered courses across the Bay Area, including at centers in San Ramon and Fremont. But those two facilities closed in 2005, leaving San Francisco, Redwood City and Oakland as the only sites outside of Berkeley.

Administrators are selling off the program’s Laguna Street building in San Francisco to help pay off its debt, much as UCLA Extension leaders did with their downtown Los Angeles site. Berkeley’s financial outlook has become rosier of late, and administrators say the debt could be repaid within two years.

Rali Christo, a St. Mary’s professor, also has taught Greek and Latin for Extension since 2000. Interest in her courses has remained consistent, she said.

Most students are working professionals, Christo said.

“The students who take my classes are highly motivated, and I respect them very much,” she said.

One of her students, Berkeley resident Kathy Geisler, has a master’s degree from New York’s Julliard School and runs a record company. Geisler said she was excited, if not a bit nervous, when she first looked into attending Extension about three years ago.

“I was actually afraid to become a student again after having kids and all that,” she said. “I felt like I was exercising muscles in my brain that hadn’t been used in a while.”