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New college program targets students with grit, not high test scores

October 23, 2012 |  4:13 pm

A new college program that will primarily select students by personal characteristics -– grit, resiliency and motivation –- rather than test scores began accepting applications this week for campuses in California and Colorado.

Portmont College at Mount St. Mary’s aims to give students who have “the will but not the way” high-quality, personalized programs featuring online learning, success coaches and other services -- all for the bargain price of $5,240 per year. 

The program, which will initially launch with a few hundred students in San Francisco and Denver, is a nonprofit joint venture between Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and MyCollege Foundation, a charity of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has donated $3 million to the effort.

“If you think about the American dream as offering a fair shot to all, it’s not as fair as it used to be,” Srikant Vasan, Portmont's founder and president, said Tuesday.  “This is our opportunity to make the dream true again.”

The required personal characteristics will be determined through an interview, psychological test and initial online course. In addition, students must also have a high school degree or its equivalency and a 10th-grade level in reading, writing and math. However, officials said they would review the academic requirement after learning that the California high school exit exam requires only an 8th-grade math level.

Vasan said the program was based on some of the educational research and innovations he came across while serving as an “entrepreneur in residence” at the Gates Foundation.  Research shows, for instance, that students retain information better when they can focus their efforts; Portmont students will take two academic classes every eight weeks, rather than larger class loads over longer semesters, Vasan said.

Software programs will help faculty and coaches keep close tabs on student progress and deliver much of the basic instruction, helping keep costs down, he said.

But the curriculum will also feature hands-on projects to apply learning to the real world and allow students to work with each other, he said. One aim is to help students learn skills for long-term success, including critical thinking, problem-solving and communications.

Portmont, which hopes to open a Los Angeles campus in the next six to 12 months, plans to launch classes next March in four associate degree programs in business administration, computer science, liberal arts and pre-health science. The students will be offered intensive support to help them launch careers or move to a four-year university after they complete their program.

Ann McElaney-Johnson, Mount St. Mary’s president, said the program will help the college’s core mission of providing superior education to underserved young adults. Although all students are welcome to apply, the program will look for motivated students facing such barriers to college as financial restraints, family and job obligations or academic deficiencies.

“We’re going to take students who might otherwise fall through the cracks,” Vasan said. “With support and rigor, we think we can get them up to par."

More information can be obtained here.  

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--Teresa Watanabe

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