UA seeks birdwatchers, bakers for new noncredit classes

2013-09-08T00:00:00Z UA seeks birdwatchers, bakers for new noncredit classesBy Carol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The University of Arizona isn’t just for degree-seekers anymore. It’s also for bird-watchers and bread-lovers.

Courses in bird-watching, tai chi, bread-making and photography — long the turf of Pima Community College — have been added to UA’s calendar this year as part of a push to offer noncredit classes to the masses.

The UA’s move comes as PCC’s noncredit arm is struggling, with thousands fewer signing up for such courses.

Rita Martinez-Purson, who oversees the UA’s new effort, said she believes there’s room for both schools to succeed at noncredit education.

“We are trying to be in partnership with them, not in competition,” said Martinez-Purson, assistant dean of the UA’s Outreach College, which recently created a new division of continuing education.

Still, a vision statement for the UA’s effort makes it clear the university plans to assume first place in the field.

“Our vision is to become the local leader in quality continuing education,” it said

Martinez-Purson said she’s been working with PCC to avoid duplication.

For example, both schools offer certifications for fitness professionals, but UA’s classes are for advanced level while the college’s are for entry-level.

Still, some of the university’s initial offerings are similar, if not identical, to PCC’s: from bird-watching to photography to tours of the historic Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix.

Maggie Romance, PCC’s director of continuing education, said demand for noncredit courses has dropped considerably there since 2009, when college executives halted the longtime practice of mass-mailing course catalogs to area homes.

They deemed the $200,000 annual expense unnecessary, assuming would-be students would migrate online to find the courses. Many didn’t, she said.

Most of PCC’s target market for such classes is middle-aged or older, an age group that tends to be less tech-savvy, she noted.

Five years ago, nearly 10,000 people took community courses at PCC, compared with about 3,000 today, Romance said.

Still, the program has maintained high quality and could flourish with proper marketing support, she said.

“I’m not afraid of competition,” Romance said of the UA’s new effort. “I believe it keeps you on your toes.”

The UA plans to add more noncredit offerings and has launched a push into customized workforce training, allowing firms to hire the university to teach new skills to employees.

The university is branching out, as well, into conference planning for higher-education groups. For example, UA staffers would locate blocks of hotel rooms, arrange guest speakers and do other related tasks, Martinez-Purson said.

The university plans to spend about $600,000 this year on noncredit education, and hopes to break even at first. Eventually, the effort could create new revenue for the university, Martinez-Purson said.

At PCC, noncredit courses are revenue-neutral, Romance said. The college spends about $350,000 to offer them, and takes in about that much from students, she said.

At both schools, noncredit classes provide a means to connect in a feel-good way with the wider world outside campus.

“Community engagement is a big part of it,” said Martinez–Purson. “We are extending the UA brand.”

Romance agreed.

“In many cases a taxpayer’s only contact with the college is through a continuing-education class. We want it to be a positive experience.”

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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