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St. Scholastica aims to reach return adult students by counting free online coursework toward degree

Students at the College of St. Scholastica can now apply education from free online courses toward completion of their college degrees, with the potential of saving thousands of dollars.

Scholastica's new pilot program, CSS Complete, gives credit for off-campus learning such as military service, volunteer experience or work history -- as it has in previous nontraditional learning programs. But it also now offers credit for the big, new thing in higher education: massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

"It could provide a less expensive way to get a degree," said Larry Goodwin, president of the college. "This is potentially a great new development in higher education, and we want to be a player in it. Increasingly, learning is necessary across the lifespan."

As an illustration, Goodwin said this is the first year the five St. Scholastica campuses combined have more nontraditional students than traditional.

Under the CSS Complete program, "completion coaches" work with students to determine which past credits will fulfill St. Scholastica course requirements and whether any prior learning can count as credit.

Credit also can be earned through exams given by St. Scholastica faculty, who will evaluate a student's mastery of a subject, and through the College-Level Examination Program.

In addition to 96 credits that can be earned through any combination of those methods, 32 credits must be earned through St. Scholastica.

"It's a different model of learning," said completion coach Teresa Ipina. "It's for highly motivated adult learners coming in with experiences. Maybe they have a two-year degree from many years ago. Life happened and they didn't finish their bachelor's degree. ... It's for someone who maybe wouldn't have come back. Then they realize, wow, it's doable."

Massive open online courses are free and do not offer credits. The new phenomenon, Goodwin said, is being offered by places like Harvard and Princeton universities, and the classes cater to hundreds of thousands of students. Even St. Scholastica offers one course of that type. And St. Scholastica is willing to give credit for online courses as long as the school can verify that adequate learning was accomplished.

Goodwin said he isn't sure how many people in the region are taking MOOCs, but he wants to put St. Scholastica in a position to work with future trends.

"It's early in the game," he said, "but I am looking down the line one year, two years, five years."

The difference between the new program and past accelerated learning programs that gave credit for prior learning is that CSS Complete students aren't asked to pay anything before a plan is developed.

"In some cases, students work with their completion coach to pursue credits at schools other than St. Scholastica," said Don Wortham, vice president of strategic initiatives for the college.

The college is willing to do that because its goal is to have more students complete their four-year degrees, he said, and it recognizes that other options exist.

"We're not, as a country, graduating enough students with four-year degrees to be competitive in the global economy," Wortham said. "And students are looking for nontraditional yet valid ways to earn a degree. In CSS Complete, the college offers a flexible pathway so that more can."

The CSS Complete program isn't for everyone, Wortham said.

It's for adult students who are self-directed and don't necessarily need to learn in a classroom, he said. Potential students should be interested in a program the college offers.

St. Scholastica faculty members also work to ensure its Benedictine philosophy is imparted to participants of the program.

"Faculty would be the judge and protector of that," Goodwin said.

He said a business professor assessing the work experience of a business owner might ask about the owner's "ethical compass." If the business owner had never studied ethics, Goodwin said, additional work might be suggested to ensure the student learned that component before credit is granted.

"It allows us to protect the brand and make sure the imprint we're trying to make on students is still made," he said.