In her capacity as a representative of Harper College, Nancy Wajler often gives talks to groups of unemployed adults. The message she imparts centers on the wisdom of returning to college to retrain and retool for new occupations.

In recent talks, she has mentioned a new program, Weekend Advantage, which will start this fall at Harper. Weekend Advantage is a weekend college for students who find taking classes during the week inconvenient.

"When I talk to them about the weekend college, they applaud. They actually applaud," marvels Wajler, the adult learning special assistant, overseeing a number of programs for working adults for the Palatine-based college.

"It's very difficult to find employment during business hours and still go to school. They're trying to find a time slot to get in their educational requirements, while still seeking jobs during traditional business hours."

Weekend Advantage will offer classes Saturday mornings and afternoons, leading to a general Associate of Arts degree that students will be able to earn in as little as three years, Wajler says. Harper College's weekend college isn't unique. It's one of several weekend college programs around the Chicago area.

Wajler believes she knows why such programs are drawing interest from students. "In any community college, there are some students who take a few classes, and then life gets in the way," she says. "They come back again, and again life gets in the way. This is a jumpstart. It will allow them the flexibility to move past those moments when life gets in the way, and they have to drop out."

Every other weekend

Benedictine University in Lisle is another institution with a weekend degree program. Its Weekend College in Naperville resumed last year after an earlier Saturday and Sunday program was discontinued years earlier.

On weekends, Benedictine offers an Associate of Arts in business administration, a Bachelor of Arts in management, a Bachelor of Arts in organizational leadership, a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Science and Leadership designed for women, says executive director of adult programs Tanesha Pittman. Undergrad programs meet every other weekend, while the graduate management programs generally meet every third weekend.

This kind of staggered schedule is important to achieving success with a weekend college program, Benedictine University officials believe. "It can be a challenge if you have to attend every weekend," Pittman says. "Weekend opportunities actually create an environment where students come in fresh. They don't have to go from work right into a class on a weekday evening."

The bachelor's degree programs at Benedictine's Weekend College are degree completion programs targeted at students who enter with a minimum of 36 transferable credit hours, Pittman says. How fast students complete the degree depends on how many hours they carry into the program. Those with 80 or more of the 120 credit hours they need for graduation can finish in two years.

Because they are accelerated programs, Weekend College courses are intense, Pittman says. "It's a cohort style program," she adds. "They start with a group of fellow students, and end with the same group. They have group assignments, so they work very closely within the learning team. It's required that they actually have interaction with their fellow students throughout the degree program. Every course features group assignments and group projects they need to work on together. There's a lot of group collaboration."

Students wind up learning not just from instructors, but from their peers as well. "These tend to be working adults, so they share best practices with one another in the classroom," Pittman says. "It's a lot of rich learning." There is no set schedule for the start of Weekend College classes at Benedictine. Instead, they start whenever at least 14 students are signed up.

Lunch, snacks included

At Shimer College, a small liberal arts school located on the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology at 35th and State streets in Chicago, all the college's core programs are offered in its Weekend College program, says Harold Stone, director of the weekend program, and European history professor. To earn degrees, students must take four courses each in the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences, as well as three integrated studies courses.

About 35 to 40 students are enrolled in the program, which has been growing since 2005, when Shimer College moved to Chicago from its former home in Waukegan. Students include people who run their own companies, others who are seeking skills for a career change, and still others who dropped out of colleges because they didn't like lectures, but re-enrolled at Shimer to savor its distinctive "discussion-style" approach to learning, Stone says.

The program is exceptionally rigorous. Students meet every third weekend and have 20 days to prepare for their next weekend classes. If they are going full-time, they take a total of nine 80-minute-long class sessions over the course of the weekend. On Saturday, classes run from early morning through 7 p.m., and on Sundays from morning through 4 p.m. "They get a breakfast bar in the morning, free lunch and afternoon snacks," Stone says. Many of the students in Shimer College's Weekend College wind up doing their homework at home in the evenings alongside their similarly occupied teenage sons and daughters, he adds.

"The intensity of the weekend program allows them to make a clean break from home for a day and a half," he says. "That allows the people at home to know this is something the adult really cares about and is serious about."

The program is designed so that students who have no college credit upon entering can earn their degrees in four years, Stone says.

How much do students appreciate the chance to take classes on weekend days when they'd normally be relaxing? Apparently, very much.

Before it launched plans for this autumn's inaugural Weekend Advantage classes, Harper conducted a survey of prospective students, Wajler says. "Not only did we get a really positive response from students, but many added, 'This is how I'm going to be able to complete my degree.'" ¿