As Dave Glesne has discovered, it’s not easy to start a college from scratch.
Especially when it comes to finding students who are willing to give it a try.
But Glesne, a Lutheran minister in Coon Rapids, is praying that everything will fall into place by September, when the Virtues Campus makes its debut.
For nearly two years, Glesne and a small group of supporters have been laying the groundwork to shake up the college landscape — by holding classes in neighborhood churches.
As they envision it, Virtues will be a hybrid of new and old ideas. Its students will take courses online, through a partnership with Waldorf College in Iowa. The “host church” will provide a home base for classroom discussions, Bible studies and a mentor, known as an “academic pastor,” to guide students academically and spiritually. All for less than $10,000 a year.
“It’s a new model of higher education,” said Glesne, “which we believe can transform America.”
If all goes as planned, the first two “campuses” will open next month at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Coon Rapids and Spirit of the Lord in Minneapolis, with room for up to 25 students each.
So far, though, only three people have applied. Which raises the “Field of Dreams”-like question: If they build it, will students come?
For now, Glesne, Virtues’ president, and his two-person staff are moving ahead with evangelical zeal. In February, he gave up his day job as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran to devote himself full time to spreading the word that there’s a new option for the college bound.
The seeds for the Virtues Campus were planted in the fall of 2013, when a Christian scholar and author named Vishal Mangalwadi met with some pastors and admirers at Glesne’s church.
Mangalwadi, who lives in India, had written about the college-in-a-church concept in a 2009 book called “Truth and Transformation, A Manifesto for Ailing Nations.” He argues, among other things, that it’s one way for Christianity to reassert its influence on an increasingly secular society.
“A partnership of church and colleges will benefit both,” he said in an interview, “and will lower the cost of education dramatically.”
Families, Mangalwadi points out, are desperate to avoid college debt. And churches have plenty of empty space to hold classes during weekdays.
With this concept, he said, students can take advantage of the wealth of subjects available online without studying in isolation. They would meet regularly with their classmates at church, while a trusted adult — the “academic pastor” — provides moral support. Or, as he calls it, “disciples them.”
“It’s simple. It’s affordable. It’s doable,” he says. “Now every church can be a college classroom.”
Glesne and his friends were so taken with Mangalwadi’s message that they invited him back in 2014 to help them get the ball rolling.
‘Could fill a need, or not’
To Ben Wildavsky, a professor of higher education at the State University of New York in Albany, Virtues strikes him as “a Christian-centric version of what many others are doing.” Many colleges, he points out, are experimenting with “blended learning” — a combination of online and brick-and-mortar classes.
“There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to move to a world in which there’s much more flexibility in the types of institutions that can offer postsecondary education,” he said. But it’s too soon to say, he added, which ideas will flourish. “There may also be some big failures,” he said. “A place like this could fill a need, or not.”
Last summer, when Glesne’s group formed Virtues Inc., there was talk of starting classes in a matter of months.
Instead, he spent the fall trying, in vain, to find another university willing to serve as a partner. He wanted to ensure that Virtues students would earn accredited degrees; and the quickest way to do that would be to piggyback on the credentials of an approved school.
Finally, he thought he had a breakthrough. “Praise the Lord,” he wrote in a Feb. 11 e-mail to supporters. “Virtues Campus reached a great milestone!” College for America, an online branch of Southern New Hampshire University, had agreed to be Virtues’ partner.
The euphoria didn’t last long. A month later, Glesne announced that the partnership had unraveled — over a dispute about gay marriage.
According to Glesne, the college balked after discovering that he had written a book about homosexuality, and that Virtues’ “Confession of Faith,” displayed on its website, recognizes only heterosexual marriage.
A spokesman for College for America would say only that the school, which caters mainly to working adults, had “some exploratory conversations” with Virtues and decided that their business strategies didn’t mesh.
In any case, Glesne was left scrambling for a new partner. Two months later, he found one: Waldorf College, a small Christian college in Forest City, Iowa, that was bought by a for-profit corporation in 2010. As part of the agreement, Virtues students will be able to earn two-year associate degrees, with Waldorf’s name on the diploma.
Who will come?
At a church gathering for potential students and supporters on May 30, Glesne was exuberant. “God is doing a new thing in the Twin Cities this fall,” he told the audience. “And we’re excited to be here to tell you about it.”
Maria Olson, a 17-year-old from Andover, said she was intrigued enough to consider it as an option. “It’s way cheaper than a lot of other colleges, and it’s closer to home,” said Maria, a high school junior, who attended the meeting with her mother, Megan. One of the appeals: the $9,600 annual tuition. But she admits she’s not so sure about the online part. “I don’t think it would be my first choice,” she said.
Her mother, who home-schools her children, sees some advantages. “Having seven children, financial issues are a big deal when you think about college,” said Megan Olson. “If you can save $20,000 a year starting out this way, it’s valuable.”
Richard Garrett, who heads a think tank called the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, said he hasn’t heard of a model like Virtues before.
But Garrett, who is based in Boston, is dubious about claims of saving money, especially when public colleges in Minnesota offer two-year degrees for as little as $5,000 a year.
“If it’s really about price, then you wouldn’t go down this road,” he said. “It’s not the least expensive by any means.”
It might appeal to students for other reasons, he said, but it’s unclear how a program like this, based in different churches, will assure its quality. “Does the institution really have sufficient oversight?” he asks.
Glesne, for one, is confident that it will all work out. “We’re plowing new ground,” he said. “There’s always the difficult phase of launching, of getting something started.” But if it takes root here, he predicts, “I think there’s going to be tremendous interest from a lot of places.”