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Close-up: Jerry Lee

National University expands to meet needs of students

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The future -- and in many ways the present -- of secondary and post-secondary education lies in a pair of nondescript buildings tucked quietly away in the hills of La Jolla.

It doesn't have a campus or an athletic team and is a relative newborn compared to its history-filled colleagues.

Despite its seeming anonymity, however, National University has grown to an enrollment of 22,000 full-time students, becoming the second largest private, nonprofit university in the state, trailing only the University of Southern California.

National, founded in 1971 and headquartered in La Jolla, boasts an endowment estimated at $345 million and owns real estate valued at $145 million. The school has classroom space in 28 locations in California and Nevada, including 13 in San Diego County.

Jerry Lee

"Obviously some people must know about us," said Jerry Lee, chancellor of the National University system and outgoing president of the school. "People who do know about the institution are those who are in the market for education.

"We have students choose us because they can get their course faster, they can get through the programs at an accelerated pace and get on with their careers. They choose us because the utility of time (and) the quality of our programs."

The typical National University student is a 36-year-old who holds down a full-time job and is taking graduate-level courses. A significant amount of students take their classes online, choosing among 100 degree programs. Women and minorities comprise a large percentage of the student population.

Lee said the university is constantly tweaking its curriculum to fit the needs of its students.

"The marketplace determines the programs that we want to offer, and we've always been very in tune and very sensitive to what does the marketplace require," he said. "We do work very hard at trying to eliminate barriers for our students; to try to accommodate their needs to make sure the programs we have are relevant, that enable them to enter the marketplace and be very competitive, very successful."

National is especially adept at producing teachers. It has credentialed more teachers than any California university for six years in a row. It also is first in the state in granting master's degrees in special education.

While largely out of the mainstream spotlight, National's healthy attendance figures can be attributed to word of mouth, particularly in the education community. Teachers, principals and superintendents all refer potential students to National University.

Another attractive element unique to National University is its tiny class size. The average course consists of 20 students.

"They get great attention," Lee said. "They get almost personal attention from the faculty member. The student loves it. It makes the teaching-learning process much more efficient, much more effective, much more rewarding and satisfying for the teacher and the student."

Professors enjoy the more mature, committed student that National draws in, and they like teaching graduate-level courses.

"It's a very different student," Lee said. "A very focused, very dedicated, very disciplined (student), and they have to be able to balance so many things in their life. And that's what truly amazes me. They are truly special and what gives me the passion and the energy to do what I do."

Lee also is inspired by another group of National students: active duty military personnel taking classes online while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"What a huge service that we are able to provide military women and men," he said. "I'm amazed at that."

Lee has been with National University for 18 years, serving as school president until just recently when his duties as chancellor became full time and required more attention. Dana Gibson, a vice president of Southern Methodist University, became National's first female president on July 9.

During his tenure at the helm, Lee helped launch in 2001 the National University System, which consists of six affiliated schools. National plans on acquiring existing institutions to become part of the National University System. Officials are currently looking at several candidates but no acquisition is imminent.

"Our interests are institutions that fit within our mission," Lee said. "Because we have been successful, because we have significant financial resources, it does enable us to acquire institutions to join us that fit our overall mission of serving a diverse population of students."

The acquisitions, which will be in the state of California, will bring business to the community, Lee said.

"We've become a huge enterprise," he said. "As we acquire a different business, a different institution, that's another payroll, that's another group of jobs it adds to the fabric of our community."

School officials also plan to begin examining how they can increase enrollment globally through the school's online capability. The school is targeting China, South Korea and India in particular.

"We see the university to continue to grow not only in the state of California but also regionally, nationally and internationally," Lee said. "Primarily through online offerings but also through a more traditional delivery of programs."

National soon hopes to offer its first doctoral degree, starting with organizational management. This is where Lee foresees the biggest growth for the school.

The university recently introduced a new division of pre-college programs, which houses a virtual high school. Now it will add a charter school curriculum designed to serve underserved students who want careers in the health professions.

The first charter school will open in Fresno, where National University has a campus.

"We don't think in terms of how big should we become; we think more in terms of how do we grow to meet the needs of our students," Lee said. "And how do we grow to serve our mission. If, in the process, we become larger, then that is certainly an important achievement, but it's driven more by serving students and providing programs that serve students in a relevant way."

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