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Education: Institute on the move gets $1 million endowment gift

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A $1 million gift will ensure that lifelong learning enjoys a long lifespan. The money from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will fund an endowment for the program run by Coastal Carolina University in Litchfield and two locations in Horry County.

The funds come as the Litchfield facility prepares to move from the Waccamaw Higher Education Center in Willbrook to Litchfield Exchange.

“I feel very good going into the new year,” said Linda Ketron, director of the institute at Coastal Carolina.

The institute grew out of a program called Senior Semesters that she started 20 years ago. It wound up at the university and in 2007 received a grant from the Osher Foundation, which supports 117 lifelong learning institutes around the country.

Osher provided $100,000 a year for three years. Ketron said the local institute was able to stretch that out by using it for technology and promotion rather than salaries.

But the goal was always to apply to the foundation for an endowment grant, she said. The $1 million will be invested through the Coastal Education Foundation, and Ketron estimates it will provide $20,000 to $30,000 a year to augment the $250,000 program budget, which is now funded by institute memberships. The university provides an equal amount of in-kind support for the institute at Litchfield and campuses in Conway and Myrtle Beach.

Spending money to promote the non-credit classes in the arts, humanities and sciences helped the membership in the local institute grow to 2,400. “We may hit 3,000 this year,” Ketron said. “I don’t lose many once they get a taste of it. They tell friends and neighbors and new people coming into the community.”

The Waccamaw facility accounts for half of the institute’s members.

The facility was built by private investors to the university’s specifications and opened in 2004. The university paid $300,000 a year in rent and maintenance and by 2010 was looking to cut back. It considered closing the facility.

“We were always in this precarious physical location,” Ketron said. The Osher Foundation wanted stability in programs it funded.

The move to Litchfield Exchange, which will begin after fall courses end next week, makes a return to the program’s roots. Ketron took the Senior Semester program to Brookgreen Gardens in 1995 and ran it as Campus Brookgreen for two years. In 1998, she started Community Learning About Special Subjects, or CLASS, at an art gallery she opened in Litchfield Exchange.

When she joined Coastal Carolina as coordinator of continuing studies, she had 80 courses and over 600 students and had run out of space.

“It’s been quite an evolution,” Ketron said.

The Osher institute will occupy 7,000 square feet at Litchfield Exchange. Grace Church has 3,000 square feet it uses for Sunday school and youth programs. There are two businesses in the mall, the Chocolate and Coffee House and Duplicates Printing.

The space for the institute is smaller than the current space at the higher education center, but there are the same number of classrooms. While there may be space for fewer students, there will be no change in the number or variety of classes, Ketron said.

The only issue arising from the move is that some computer lab classes won’t start until February to allow time for the facility to be networked with Coastal Carolina’s main campus.

The former higher education center is being leased by Georgetown Hospital System for a billing center and classroom space.

The $1 million endowment, and the possibility of a second gift in the same amount, helps make the future of the continuing education program secure, but Ketron said its real security is in the university mission statement, which talks about cultivating lifelong learning in its students and the community.

Still, “it’s exciting, it really is. It felt like winning the lottery,” Ketron said.

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