A bold new presence has arrived on East Tamiami Trail with the opening of the brand new Keiser University campus just east of the Town Centre South shopping mall. The bright building, painted in vibrant blue and green hues, is another breath of fresh air for the ever-improving East Naples district.
The new campus, opened just after Thanksgiving, represents an increase of 23,000 square feet over Keiser’s previous location on Creekside Boulevard in North Naples. Campus President Lynda Waterhouse couldn’t be happier with her new surroundings.
“I think this building has been very helpful,” Lynda Waterhouse said. “We were tucked away at the other location. We had people saying every day that they had no idea Keiser was here, didn’t know what Keiser University was. Now we’re getting traffic. We have potential students who drop in. We didn’t have that before. This has been awesome to move here. Our last building was 18,000 square feet and this building is 41,000 square feet.”
The university was built on a large vacant lot on U.S. Route 41, a rare find in today’s Naples real estate market. Waterhouse said there was virtually no public opposition to the new university. In fact, the neighbors who attended a special meeting were happy to see them come.
“We had to have notices go out to all the neighbors and we had a neighborhood meeting that I had to attend,” Waterhouse said. “The land attorney, the architectural firm, everybody was at this meeting. Notices went to all the people who are in the Glades and Lakewood communities. Only seven people showed up—and they loved all of the renderings. They were like, ‘This is so awesome. This is wonderful.’ There had been homeless people here before. Not that I like to run the homeless out—I was the chair for the hungry and homeless for eight years. So, it’s not like I want to say anything bad about the homeless. The residents who lived here felt like they could have had something retail come in here—restaurants. So they were really happy with the renderings and the views that they would have. So I feel like it was a mutual relationship.”
Waterhouse approached the meeting with a bit of trepidation.
“I did have concerns,” she admitted. “Beforehand I didn’t know what people would think. I met with then-County Commissioner Donna Fiala. She told me that only one person out of her whole email distribution list of over 2,000 people commented—and that was about traffic. They just said they didn’t want anything that would cause more traffic. That ended up being a non-issue too.”
Waterhouse was the Executive Director of the anesthesia group that founded Wolford College in Naples in 1995. She also served as Chief Financial Officer for the college. Wolford became Keiser University in 2018.
“We were originally Wolford,” Waterhouse said, “we were a single purpose university for nurse anesthesia. In 2018, we went with Keiser University. We required regional accreditation.”
Enter Arthur Keiser, Chancellor and CEO of Keiser University. Keiser founded Keiser University in 1977 with his mother, a year after receiving his MBA from the University of Florida. Keiser now consists of over 22,000 students on 21 campuses.
“Our Naples campus has an interesting story,” Keiser said. “There was a school called Wolford College that was created by a group of anesthesiologists who wanted to train and hire nurse anesthetists. They opened Wolford College. But because of changes in accreditation in their field, they needed a regionally accredited sponsor—which we are. We took them over, we got approvals, maintained our programs in nurse anesthesia, then we decided we needed much more space because we wanted to offer more programs. So we built the campus down on 41. We’re very excited. We offer new programs in nursing, at a variety of levels, besides the nurse anesthetist program—which has become a doctoral program. There’s other programs we’ve added that we’re really excited about. We’ve added radiological technology, occupational therapy, and other programs that are needed in Collier County.”
“We went with Keiser in July of 2018,” Waterhouse recalls. “From 2018 until this November, we were in a building in Creekside. Once we went with Keiser, we had 24 months to stay in that building. Keiser eventually found this site. There was nothing here. It was empty.”
Waterhouse is excited about the growth potential for Keiser University in Naples. She’s especially proud of the radiologic technology degree the school is offering. She said students can expect to earn $60,000 with their associate degree in radiologic technology.
“We are starting a Rad tech program,” Waterhouse said. “I talked to NCH and Lee Health. Both of them said it would be an answer to their dreams if we had that program. So we’re starting that program. We hope to admit students, starting in May, for that program. We’re getting the designs ready to turn one of the labs upstairs into a classroom where they’ll have X-Ray machines.
“The thing the hospitals like about it is that they can train up their CT people, their MRI people—it’s just another place where there’s a gap.”
Keiser University is a private, not-for-profit university. One might be surprised to know that it’s the largest such university in the state.
“Interestingly enough,” Keiser said, “we’re the largest independent, not-for-profit university in the state. Nova is second, Miami is third. Along with Rollins and Stetson, we’re part of the independent universities of Florida.”
Keiser’s also proud of an honor the university received from US News and World Report.
“US News and World Report ranked us #11 in the country,” he said, “#1 in Florida, in terms of social mobility—getting students who want to upgrade themselves and move to a different level in the society. Because of the method in which we teach, the small classes, the focus on career education, with a strong, solid academic background, that’s what attracts the students to us.”
Moving from Wolford College, which concentrated on just one program, to Keiser University, has been exciting for Waterhouse, a CPA who holds advanced degrees from the University of Miami and the University of South Carolina. She appreciates the support that an established university like Keiser provides.
“It’s fun,” Waterhouse said, “it’s a lot of fun. Dr. Keiser said to me one day, ‘I just want you to have fun, Lynda. Get out of your office and talk to the students and have fun.’ In the past I was focused on a single program. With Keiser it’s wonderful that we have this huge support system. There’s never a day where I feel that I have to make the decision and find the answer all by myself. There’s a whole team of people who can help me. Anywhere from the people who work with the accreditation bodies to the university chair for the Rad Tech program. We have a whole team of people who specialize in what they do. So when I have a question, it’s not just me trying to figure it out.
“What is really unique about Keiser is that we do have 22,000 students, but our largest population at one campus is 1,500 to 1,600 students. We all have our unique campus culture, which is driven by the culture of our community. That’s what it’s intended to do. We are here to fill the educational gaps in our particular community. We’re not necessarily like Fort Myers, or Sarasota, or Fort Lauderdale, or Pembroke Pines. But we can take anything that they’ve done if it’s a fit for our community—and duplicate it.”
“We’re in our 44th year of operations,” Keiser said. “We started with one student, and today we have over 22,000 students. We have 19 different locations throughout the state of Florida. We also have campuses in San Marcos, Nicaragua and Shanghai, China.”
Keiser University is comprised mainly of adult learners. Although there is one exception.
“We have our residential campus in West Palm Beach,” Keiser said. “We have a football team and 23 sports we’re very successful with. But our campuses in Naples and Fort Myers are primarily career development institutions for adult learners. Like the nurse anesthetist program, it’s a very skilled, very highly evolved program that’s taught at a doctoral level. So when the students go out they are serving in the hospitals and the OR as nurse anesthetists.”
“It’s typically adult learners,” Waterhouse agrees. “Or it’s students who have some education behind them. They may not have been successful—maybe in a big school environment. They’re looking for a nurturing type of environment—the smaller class sizes. So we’ve had students like that, where the parents will bring them in and say, ‘My child didn’t go to school for the last year.’ It’s usually a partnership between the parent and child, where they want a situation where they will have more attention. We hope to be moving into even high school. Being able to get into that market where we can help direct students toward careers. I think as our demographics change in this area, there is a cultural difference where families want to stay together. There’s not so much of a trend to take off and fly out to California. They want a career; they want an education and they want to be able to stay with their families. I think that this kind of environment is attractive to them. It gives them an option so that they don’t have to leave town to go to school.”
Keiser University focuses on a one-class-at-a-time approach to education. Waterhouse says the approach works. “Our platform is a little different than a lot of schools. We do a class at a time semester. So the students take one single class per month. That works especially well for adults who are working. It’s a little easier for them to multi-task. They can be focused on just one class. It’s accelerated. It seems to work well and they like it.
“The one class at a time program is for everybody. I think Keiser was a first in Florida. They were definitely one of the leaders in Florida for that type of curriculum. It makes a lot of sense.”
Not surprisingly, Keiser himself is a big proponent of the one-class-at-a-time approach.
“Our school is very oriented to the students,” Keiser said. “Most of our programs are one class at a time. Because the adult learner has children and family and work responsibilities, they can’t take four or five classes at a time. They’re much more serious of a student than the 18-year-old that’s going to a traditional university. These students all have jobs—68% have been to a community college or university before. It’s different. We’re much more serious. We have a dress code. We pride ourselves in the learning our students are achieving.”
“There is a move away from traditional education and the belief that everyone needs a four-year traditional education,” Waterhouse said. “The movement is much more toward calling it the cradle-to-the-career. Helping each student find what is going to be their occupation, and being able to train them and educate them. I guess I feel it is a career college with a focus on being able to have a student leave and be successfully employed and job-ready. I think that helps a lot of students who might not be successful in a typical traditional, education—when you have to go to college for four years and you have to take all of these general studies and you don’t even know what it is you want to do. That’s when a lot of people lose their way. But if they have a vision about what they’re going to be doing, and can have externships, or they have simulation labs, or they have a way to get a taste of what their careers are going to be like—they’re hooked.
“It’s a matter of serving the community,” Keiser said. “Working with the different industries. Naples is growing like a weed—all of Florida is. It’s something that will be a great help to the community in providing the needed personnel. We don’t compete with the community college. Our largest class is 24. When I taught history at the University of Florida, I had 450 students. That’s a whole different world. Some students don’t learn too well in that environment. They need that personal attention. That’s what we provide.”
Jia Liu is a student in Keiser University’s new nurse anesthetist doctoral program.
“So far it’s really good,” Jia Liu said. “The anesthesia program is intense. Not like anything I’ve ever done before. It’s really good. The professors here are really good—they’re willing to help. If you have any questions, they’re there. Dr. Waterhouse is extremely helpful and nice. My class is small, so the students have more time hands-on with the professors, so that’s good. All the students in the anesthesia program were critical care nurses before this. All of us were prior ICU nurses. So we were all nurses before we came here. The classes are full-time. And when I say full-time, I mean full-time. At a certain point in the program, you’re going to start going to the hospital for clinicals. So you’re not going to have time to work. It’s a full-time program.
“We’re the first doctorate program here. It’s a total of three years, and we’ve just completed the first year. We have two more years to go.”
Keiser hopes to grow his Naples campus.
“Our goals are to develop the Naples campus and continue to add programs,” Keiser said. “To fill up the school. Right now they have about 200 students. Our goal is to bring them up to 700 to 800 students. None of our classes are large. All of our programs lead to a very specific occupational skill at a degree level. Our hope is to expand that and really become a very critical part of serving Naples with highly skilled, licensed people. That’s what our goal is.”
While students can earn a degree going to school 100% online, the majority of learning at the Naples campus is termed hybrid learning.
“We do have an online division,” Waterhouse said. “Right now we’re trying to build our on-ground, especially because we now have our campus and have the space to do that. But we do have an online division. A lot of our classes are hybrid, they have a mixture of the on-campus ground component as well as course work that would be done online. So I think that Keiser University as a whole, all of the campuses, when we left on March 17—because of the COVID pandemic—and sent our students and faculty home, I think that we were quite successful because everything we did was hybrid. So, it was very easy to flip a switch and do everything online. And it worked for a couple of months, but it’s not great for all students. If you have highly motivated students that do really well, they don’t necessarily need that hand touching every day. But students that struggle need that reinforcement. It’s good for them to have to come to campus and be accountable. If you leave them on their own too long, they’re not going to do their work. So that’s the balance.”
“We have a strong online presence,” Keiser asserted. “We started online programs back in 1998, so we were an early adopter of that. Our students have the opportunity to go on campus—like you have in Naples. The facility is beautiful. The students have the opportunity to be on campus in a full campus environment. They can do hybrid programs and they can do fully online programs. Our campus has a nice presence there on 41. Students taking a hybrid program will take a third on campus and two thirds online. We were hoping to go 50-50, but the spike in COVID in the last couple of months prevented us from doing that. Our hope is by next fall we will be back to 100% on campus for our students who want that.”
Waterhouse is working diligently to keep the Naples campus as safe as possible during these COVID times.
“I’m really looking forward to COVID being over and everything getting back to normal,” Waterhouse said. “Right now we have very strict protocols. People get their temperatures taken, we have only 10 to 12 students in a classroom at a time. If there are 20 students, we’re breaking the class in two—an A section and B section. Half of the students come on campus and the others are doing it on Keiser Live remotely. And then they flip flop for the next class. That’s awkward. We’re doing what we need to do to keep the density down on campus. We have the students segregated by six feet in the classrooms, wearing their masks. We have day porters who are cleaning constantly. They’re walking around wiping down the doorknobs, chairs, everything. In between class sessions they’re cleaning. So we have all classes staggered as well. And the hardest part is keeping the students from congregating. They’re not supposed to stay on campus. They’re supposed to come to campus for their class, but then leave. We take reservations for the library and lab time. We have to limit the number of students.
Waterhouse has a big idea that she hopes will someday come to fruition at the Naples campus.
“The Sarasota, Tallahassee and Melbourne campuses have culinary programs,” Waterhouse said. “I think that would be so much fun. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the restaurant industry. I’ve had people who have approached me about it. I’m trying to figure out if we could build a pipeline. Trying to figure out how much people really want to have a culinary program in Naples. I went to the restaurants—the restaurant group meetings—everybody has a different kind of agenda. They didn’t really want an associate degree. They might send an employee in to do a month of sauces—that kind of thing. So, for me, it was too much of an investment if you don’t have the support of the employers. You have to have commitment from the business community. I think that’s one thing that I find interesting. A lot of businesses will complain that they have a shortage, but they also might not be willing to do internships, or be clinical sites for that type of thing. The best way for students to learn is to actually get that experience. And the best way for employers to get employees is to have that relationship as well. They get to test drive everybody. It’s a win-win.
“It would be cool and unique for Naples to have. We could tie in business students. We could offer restaurant management. We could do the whole thing. So that’s kind of in the back of my mind, still. But I think it’s a matter of finding the right people to support it. Because you need to know that you have that pipeline of students coming in. In Sarasota, they basically have about 75 students at any one time in their culinary program. And that just about breaks them even. So that’s the thing I’m trying to assess.
“Dr. Keiser called me and said, ‘How are you doing with the culinary? Do they want it?’ He really didn’t want to do culinary, because it’s expensive and it’s perishable. But he said, ‘We can make one wing culinary. I have it all planned out.’
“But I couldn’t get enough people to really go along with it. We have space to the side to do another 25,000 square foot building. So I kind of felt what would be cool is if we could get a culinary program like that, we could have a semi-little restaurant that could be their training spot. We’re close to downtown Naples on the East Trail. It would be a fun place to go and be supportive of the students.”