St. Cloud State gets approval to launch some online programs — with conditions

St. Cloud State University campus seen
Several additions to Atwood Center at St. Cloud State University have been done throughout the years to meet the changing demands at the St. Cloud campus. St. Cloud State wants to expand online education aimed largely at nontraditional students by providing accelerated online degrees.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

The state college and university system has allowed St. Cloud State University to expand online education for undergraduates but is requiring a slower rollout than the university had planned.

St. Cloud State wants to expand online education aimed largely at nontraditional students by offering accelerated online degrees.

Some SCSU faculty have raised objections to the university’s contract with a for-profit company, Academic Partnerships, to manage online programs in exchange for half the tuition revenue. 

Minnesota State, formerly known as MnSCU, asked SCSU to pause its expansion until it could review the plan and the contract with Academic Partnerships. 

In an Oct. 27 memo, the state system agreed to allow St. Cloud to start with three programs of its choosing, and report annually on actual enrollment and revenue. The university had  proposed 11, including psychology, software engineering, business and a bachelor’s completion degree for registered nurses.

St. Cloud State must report annually on the actual enrollment and revenue of the programs, how it’s gathering and addressing student complaints and other information, according to the memo.

After two years, if the university can show evidence that the three courses are successful, it can add three more.

Jenna Chernega is president of the state Inter Faculty Organization, which had raised objections to the plan.

"We think this is a careful and measured approach, with annual review and reporting requirements, to see how the programs are working to assess their impact on students in Minnesota and campuses across our system,” she said.

St. Cloud State has undergone budget cuts, cut faculty positions and phased out some majors due to enrollment declines over the past decade. University officials say revenues haven’t kept up with instructional costs, creating a structural deficit. 

University officials were not available for an interview. In a statement, they said they were “delighted” to move forward with providing accelerated online programs, and appreciate the guidance provided by Minnesota State.

“This positions SCSU to provide individualized programs to working adults who wish to complete a degree,” the statement read. Officials said they view it as an opportunity to provide access to high-quality programs “aligning with workforce needs.”

The university has not yet announced which three programs it plans to launch.

Chernega said she’s concerned about the bachelor’s degree in psychology, because faculty say they already have a successful online B.A. program with about 100 students.

“It feels like taking an existing program that's doing well at what it's doing, stopping it and trying something experimental, where you're not even going to get 100 percent of the proceeds,” she said.

Chernega said St. Cloud State is the first campus in the Minnesota State system to sign a contract with an online management company, and it’s been a test case.

“I think everyone has learned a lot about how these contracts are written, what they look like, the implications of them,” she said. “And I think that everyone has learned more about what we would look for in future contracts like this with companies, to avoid some of the biggest pitfalls we’ve seen.” 

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