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The College of St. Scholastica, a Roman Catholic institution located in Duluth, Minn., wants to help working adults earn degrees with a hands-on approach to granting credit for learning gained outside the classroom, including through massive open online classes (MOOCs).

“I’m really intrigued by this so-called disruptive technology,” said Larry Goodwin, St. Scholastica’s president. “It does seem to provide at least the possibility of making the higher education business model less expensive.”

The new degree completion program, which is in a pilot phase, is aimed at students who hold some college credit but have failed to earn a degree – some 40 million Americans. Every adult student in the program at St. Scholastica will be assigned a faculty member or staff counselor who will serve as a “completion coach” to help them along the way.

College officials said they will count up to 96 credits from elsewhere toward a bachelor's degree. Those credits could include transfer credits earned at a community college or other four-year institution. But they could also be credits students earn by proving their prior learning through a portfolio -- a detailed record of that learning -- or by passing tailored tests or commonly used examinations. Students must earn a minimum of 32 credits from St. Scholastica, with some of those credits counting toward general education and major requirements.

The private college’s ambitious approach to prior-learning assessment is a reminder that nontraditional, online institutions like Western Governors University and the University of Maryland University College aren’t the only ones trying to stay a step ahead of potential game-changers in higher education.

Like community colleges and regional public universities, a growing number of private colleges have ramped up their experiments with the big three disruptions: competency-based learning, prior-learning assessment and fledgling attempts to issue credit for MOOCs.

Some, like Liberty University, which does prior-learning assessment, and Southern New Hampshire University, which is pushing the envelope on competency-based learning, have built their own online brand. But others, like St. Scholastica, are relying on mostly on transfer credit issued by their on-ground campuses.

The college is a member of the Council of Independent Colleges. Richard Ekman, the council’s president, said several other member institutions have made similar strides of late, including Centenary College in New Jersey, Saint Leo University and Southern Vermont University.

Those efforts can be controversial, however. Faculty members are often skeptical about handing out college credit for learning that occurs somewhere else. And that can be a particular challenge at private colleges, where there is typically an emphasis on general education requirements and a holistic approach to learning. Small private colleges are often attached to their identity and mission, for good reason.

Ekman said he has concerns about how much of a degree comes from prior-learning assessment. The federal government and regional accreditors require that a minimum of 25 percent of credits counting toward a degree were earned for classes at the issuing college.

“I worry a lot about the coherence of degrees,” Ekman said. “There’s got to be an informing philosophy of education.”

Value and Prior Learning

Goodwin said the college is taking a thoughtful, faculty-led approach to determining its still-evolving stance on prior-learning assessment. For example, he said faculty members were considering how, and if, tests could be designed to measure learning in MOOCs. And they are working on how to incorporate portfolio-based methods, as well as the possibility of using oral exams to get “inside the student’s heads.”

Perhaps most important, Goodwin said the college would seek to incorporate its “moral compass” and Benedictine ethos in prior-learning assessment. And that will be made easier through what he hopes will be a distinctively high-touch model of coaching.

“That kind of an approach allows us to include our values,” said Goodwin. “I want us to try to hold onto that.”

St. Scholastica is hardly a neophyte when it comes to serving adult students, who make up about half of its total enrollment of 4,000. (The college offers some master’s degrees alongside its bachelor’s programs.) Although the University of Minnesota has a branch campus in Duluth, St. Scholastica is a big fish in the Rust Belt city. During economic downturns it has been popular with out-of-work adult students who want training for a new start.

That regional role is evident in the college’s description of its “CSS Complete” program, which it describes as being designed to help 100,000 Minnesotans who left college without a degree over the last decade.

One key for the prior-learning assessment push to take off at St. Scholastica is its price point. Most adult students are unlikely to be attracted by a full sticker price of $30,000 in tuition and fees. But with prior-learning credits, a bachelor’s degree could cost as little as $25,000, according to the college.

On its website St. Scholastica describes how a hypothetical student could spend $8,500 on 60 credits earned at community colleges and $500 for successfully passed College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, which would be worth 12 credits. Then the student could spend $1,500 on "challenge" exams at St. Scholastica for prior-learning, also worth 12 credits, $1,500 on a 12-credit portfolio assessment, and then $12,640 on 32 credits of coursework. That means the college would only receive $15,640 of the estimated total cost of $24,000 for the degree. The details and business model for that pathway are still being hashed out, however, Goodwin said.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) is a national leader on standards for prior-learning assessment. The group also runs a portfolio service called Chari Leader Kelley, vice president for Learning Counts, said private colleges that are increasing their prior-learning assessment offerings are often tuition driven, and are also mindful of changing demographics. St. Scholastica, for example, is in a region that lacks the fertile student populations of the South and West.

Colleges that will succeed with adult students seeking prior-learning credits need to be mindful of how those students fit in on campus, Leader Kelley said.

“Programs offered in isolation without taking into account the changes in culture, service delivery and faculty support will likely struggle,” she said via email.

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