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A small but growing number of private colleges are seeking to expand their reach by creating online affiliates, typically catering to students who would not be able to afford the traditional campus or meet the colleges' admissions standards.

Mount St. Mary’s College, a Catholic liberal arts institution located in Los Angeles, joined this group in January with the debut of Portmont College, a fully online, nonprofit subsidiary.

“Portmont College allows us to provide a superior online associate degree program to students who desperately want to enroll in college,” Ann McElaney-Johnson, Mount St. Mary’s president, said in a written statement.

The partnership had an unusual and difficult genesis, which didn’t go according to the original plan. But experts said Portmont includes several innovative features. And if it succeeds, the new college might spawn imitators.

Portmont offers online associates degrees in business administration, liberal arts and pre-health science. It is relatively affordable -- annual tuition is $9,600 -- although more expensive than most community colleges. Students can receive federal financial aid to attend the college, because it is accredited through Mount St. Mary’s.

The college has brokered transfer agreements with eight four-year institutions, including Western Governors University, Arizona State University, Regis University and, of course, Mount St. Mary’s. The agreements ensure that student can “seamlessly” transfer with credits from Portmont, college officials said.

The three degree programs are prescribed tracks, offering few electives to students as they progress.

Kay McClenney is a fan of that approach. McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement and a prominent expert on community colleges, has long advocated for structured pathways and fewer choices in two-year degree programs. More students get to graduation that way, she said.

McClenney was not familiar with Portmont, but she welcomed another online associate degree choice -- particularly a nonprofit. And she said the narrow degree programs would be particularly useful in the online environment.

“Online education requires a whole lot of discipline,” she said.

Sole Partner

While Portmont has national aspirations, its recruiting focus for now is on Southern California and the Denver metropolitan area.

The college is authorized to enroll students in 26 states, said Keenan Davis, its vice president of partnerships. But Davis said Portmont has worked for two years to build ties to K-12 systems and community organizations around Denver.

“That’s where we started,” he said.

The idea first took root in 2012 with a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The money went to a partnership between Mount St. Mary’s and the MyCollege Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Denver.

Srikant Vasan, a former official at the Gates Foundation, founded the MyCollege Foundation. He had big plans for Portmont, saying he hoped the college would enroll 4,000 students and expand to San Francisco and five or so other markets within three years.

But the college’s launch was delayed until this January. And Mount St. Mary’s no longer partners with the foundation.

“MyCollege Foundation ceased to exist,” said Larry Smith, vice president for strategic partnerships at Mount St. Mary’s. Vasan, who was Portmont’s founder and original president, has also moved on.

Even so, Mount St. Mary’s leaders decided to go forward with Portmont’s launch. They hired the foundation’s entire staff from Denver and began enrolling students at Portmont in January. So far almost 100 students have taken courses at the college, officials there said.

“We made the choice to continue,” Smith said, “because it really is our mission.”

Portmont allows the college to deliver a high-quality education at a lower price to students, Smith said, many of whom are lower-income, members of minority groups and first-generation college students.

Tuition at Portmont is $400 per credit, which works out to $9,600 a year at a standard course load. There are no textbook fees.

The college worked to lower the cost of instruction to a price point that officials there said will be attractive to lower-income students. They didn't reach the $5,240 level Vasan aimed for, but were able to bring prices down by using automated online content with small groups of students -- usually 15 -- who collaborate with each other on group projects. They get guidance and help from coaches rather than tenured faculty.

In contrast, Mount St. Mary’s charges $34,000 in annual tuition and fees (though most students pay less because of institutional grant aid). And the convenience of online, lower-cost degrees will be more attractive to working adults and single parents, officials said.

Mount St. Mary’s also wanted to reap returns on the time and money it invested in building an online platform for the subsidiary. Smith said he hopes the platform can pay off for students at Portmont and the main campus alike, perhaps through the addition of online majors down the road.

However, the college’s plans for growth at Portmont are somewhat more modest than the original, foundation-conceived goals. That means cautious growth and a regional focus, for now.

“They were looking for a national model,” he said of the original partnership. “We probably still are, too.”

Working With Wal-Mart and High Schools

Like many upstart, online institutions, Portmont will rely on ties to employers. And the college has already scored several coups.

For example, it is one of about 10 preferred institutions that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., steers its workers to for higher education programs, according to Davis. Portmont offers discounted tuition to the huge retailer’s employees. Other corporate partners include UPS and Stellar Restaurant Solutions, a large take-out restaurant call center company based in Colorado Springs.

The new college has also developed partnerships with more than a dozen community groups around Denver. Many of those organizations work with minority and lower-income students, such as the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver, Servicios de La Rasa and the Denver Urban League.

Davis said the goal is to reach underserved populations of both recent high school graduates and low-income, working adults.

A key part of the model is for a “personal success coach” to be assigned to each student. Coaches will stick with students throughout their time at Portmont, Davis said. And the relatively high-touch approach also means faculty will be responsive to their online students.

Coursework is broken into eight-week terms throughout the year. Students will be enrolled in two courses each term and perhaps a laboratory, depending on the major.

Faculty at Mount St. Mary’s designed Portmont’s curriculum, which the Catholic college controls. The degree programs include elements of competency-based education. Portmont measures student performance on six “core capabilities” -- work ethic, learning to learn, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and effective communication.

Any faculty from Mount St. Mary’s may teach at the college, according to documents resulting from a recent review by the host institution’s regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission. Mount St. Mary’s likely will hire adjuncts to work for Portmont as well.

Mary Ellen Petrisko, the commission’s president, noted in a letter to McElaney-Johnson that Portmont’s first group of students fell far below original enrollment projections. Given the changing concept for the college, she said Mount St. Mary's faculty members and leaders should “develop new academic and financial plans for this project and monitor its progress.”

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