By Katy Murphy
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
REDWOOD CITY -- For college students who work all day, Cañada College has set up a night school with a personal touch that keeps them from wandering in the dark as they manage their hectic lives.
"They help you register. They counsel you. They check in with you every semester," said Siosiua Vea, who studies at Cañada College's new College for Working Adults in Redwood City. "They just make sure you're on course to get your degree."
Vea spent years signing up for courses he never finished before discovering the program, which spares night students the hassles, delays and loss of momentum that can drag them down. Now in his third year, the 31-year-old from East Palo Alto is on track to graduate in May.
Contrary to popular images of college students -- and the interchangeable use of "students" and "kids" -- about 43 percent are 25 and older, and their numbers are expected to grow, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Although most community colleges do offer night courses, students with inflexible schedules often find it difficult to find the courses -- and services, such as financial aid and counseling -- they need strictly at night.
Cañada, which graduates its first group of night-school students this spring, is the latest to start a program specifically for people with full-time day jobs, joining the ranks of Berkeley City College and Hayward's Chabot College. For three years, students come to campus on Thursday nights and every other Saturday, chugging through a defined sequence of courses on a fixed schedule with the same group of students and the same counselor.
"We've taken out all the guess work," said David Johnson, Cañada's dean of humanities and social sciences. "They don't have to figure it out on their own."
Such programs take a great deal of coordination, but they don't cost colleges or students any more than traditional classes, Johnson said. Their built-in efficiency arguably gives taxpayers more bang for their buck.
It's too early to gauge the success of Cañada's program, which has about 120 students, but the nearly 30-year-old Program for Adult College Education program, or PACE, at Berkeley City College typically graduates about 80 percent of its students, said Linda McAllister, a sociology instructor and one of the program coordinators.
"These are incredibly effective programs for degree completion," she said.
PACE students make up about 2 percent of Berkeley City College's student body, McAllister said, but in some years, they have received more than 30 percent of the degrees the college awards. The program takes about two years to complete and recently has been revised to let students study a wider array of fields, including business and political science.
Cañada's night students, by contrast, leave with one of three associate degrees -- psychology, humanities or human services -- which they can use to transfer into one of 13 CSU majors, including political science and sociology.
Still, programs designed for working students are rare in community colleges, with only a handful in the Bay Area.
Cal State East Bay is the only public four-year college in the area to offer nighttime on-campus degree programs.
Felicia Valdez works in Belmont -- not far from Redwood City -- but she lives more than an hour's drive away in Tracy and commutes in for Saturday classes. Like Vea, she tried to take courses on her own, while working, but found it frustrating and difficult.
"I was taking random classes. I didn't know what I needed, or if it was getting me closer," she said.
Vea is a classic example of a student who needed help finishing what he started. He failed so many courses, he said, he was kicked out of college. Twice.
After he graduates from Cañada in May, he plans to study architecture at a university.
"I still can't believe it. It hasn't hit me yet," Vea said. "It's been a while since I put on a cap and gown."