The dean of the School of Business at Fresno Pacific University, Dennis Langhofer, Ed.D, talks about the founding and past twenty years of development for the Degree Completion Program.
Designed for former students, now working professionals, Fresno Pacific University’s (FPU) Degree Completion Program is suited to accommodate a professional’s work schedule, unique academic history, and limited access to educational facilities. Through the Degree Completion Program, a private Christian college has carved out a successful niche for returning students in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley over the past twenty years. To learn more, I met the dean of the Business School at Fresno Pacific University, Dennis Langhofer, Ed.D, for lunch and discussion.
Dean Langhofer was the Interim Director of FPU’s Degree Completion program when it began back in 1991, and he remained in that position for much of the decade. “The first five years were a struggle,” said Dean Langhofer after taking a moment to reflect back on the Degree Completion Program’s origins. According to the former Interim Director, the issues began when the program was developed outside the traditional FPU curriculum. To accommodate the prospective students “we had to change our general education and language requirements,” says Dean Langhofer before conceding that this change was somewhat “foreign to traditional academia” at the university.
With an expression of appreciation, Dean Langhofer relays that the program maintained the necessary independence to get established, which was afforded by then Academic Vice President Gerald Winkleman, Ph.D. The dean recalled how the program was sheltered from the pressure of voices challenging the legitimacy of the degree. Knowing that there would be increased scrutiny, his stated mission was to ensure a curriculum that was “different, but equivalent in quality” while relying on the legitimacy obtained from adhering to WASC  accreditation standards. Dean Langhofer also believes, in regards to the original detractors, that the program results “won a lot of them over.”
Another challenge in starting the Degree Completion Program was “getting the resources to grow with limited dollars,” states Dean Langhofer. Even with the initial funding obstacles the program did grow. In fact, the Degree Completion Program has established three regional centers and expanded to offer seven different programs in six different disciplines.  The initial program was developed for business students and it took six years before the next one was offered in Christian ministries. There are different challenges that come with experiencing growth, cautions the dean, including sustaining what he calls “smart growth.” To meet these new challenges he stated that the program had to ensure the quality of education while continuing to provide a true baccalaureate experience for each new program developed or new regional center established.
Something happened, explains Dean Langhofer, as the program advanced and matured – revenue from these programs became a critical part of the university’s funding and thereby “sustaining FPU as a whole.” Because of the significant role played in the university by the Degree Completion Program, both academically and financially, the programs were absorbed back into the respective schools in 2008. This transition removed the Degree Completion Program’s independence from the various schools in the university, but Dean Langhofer went on to assert that while some things have changed there are some non-negotiable elements to the program.
During its founding, the faculty and administrators agreed an important element would be “that the program should be cohort based, and this has served us well,” says Dean Langhofer. He goes on to suggest that this class structure created a “loyalty to the program and to each other” regarding the students. Other constants are the devotionals in which the class participates together during each session as well as the students’ preparation and sharing of food. The dean reiterates the point that incorporating “food is critical” in connecting the cohort participants and to “bond them together as a group.” He described, in a variety of ways, the Degree Completion Program’s goal for the students to create a support structure by focusing on one another’s spiritual well being while feeding their minds and bodies. The act of providing a support structure is the reason the dean believes many former students maintain a passion for the program and their individual cohort.
When asked the reason for his sustained passion about the Degree Completion Program, Dean Langhofer shared his own higher learning experience, which included starting college at the age of twenty-five. He then shared about the experience of obtaining a masters degree at thirty-one and starting his doctoral studies at fifty-eight. This was a “lifelong learning mandate,” says the dean and it helped him to relate with students returning to higher education in the Degree Completion Program.
In a similar way to promoting the idea of a lifelong learning experience, Dean Langhofer shares that initiating and building a successful academic program means “never assum[ing the work] is finished.” An example of the continuing work of the program is the ongoing investment in its faculty, advises the dean. Faculty development in the Degree Completion Program includes providing coaching opportunities through mixing the team by paring an “experienced instructor with a less experienced.” In the end, the dean says that the success of a dynamic program requires starting with the “right idea” at the “right time,” but it is above all dependent on having the “right people.”
Mr. Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.
Mr. Freeman would like to extend a special thank you to Cindy Steele, Executive Director of Regional Centers at Fresno Pacific University, for providing additional background information on the Degree Completion Program.