It's safe to say that Carlie Berg has learned how to multitask.

Last summer, she was working full time, pregnant with her second child and coaching volleyball in her spare time when she decided to go back to college.

"I really wanted to broaden my horizons," said Berg, 27, of Owatonna. So she signed up for a pilot project at Riverland Community College to study business in what was left of her waking hours.

Next week, she'll be one of the first students to earn a college credential through FlexPace, an innovative online program created just for working adults.

Riverland, based in Austin, Minn., launched the program as an experiment last year in hopes of luring back students like Berg, who had dropped out of college at age 19. It offers an alternative to the traditional semester-long classes with rigid deadlines; in this case, students can work at their own pace and even get credit for skills they learned on the job.

It's proven so popular, say Riverland officials, that they're expanding the program this fall, and they've won a $25,000 grant to test the concept for the entire Minnesota State colleges and universities system.

"Our goal was to help people who were in the workforce already," said Deb McManimon, a business instructor who helped create the program. So far, she says, both students and their employers seem to be delighted.

The problem, she said, is that many working adults struggle to go back to school and often drop out because life or work gets in the way. Meanwhile, many employers struggle to fill jobs that require a college degree.

So she and J.C. Turner, the program director, searched for a way to serve both sides. "We thought, can we modify what we're doing to allow more flexibility?" she said. "And to let them demonstrate things they already know because they are working adults."

With FlexPace, students take a series of six-week classes (such as introduction to business, principles of marketing, business law). It's a variation on a popular trend called mastery-based education in which students work on their own timetable and take online assessments to prove that they've mastered the material. "They can't go forward until they show that they know something," said Turner. If they're already well-versed in a topic — say, a unit on Microsoft Word — they can speed through the class.

When the pilot project was announced last year, the 10 slots filled so fast that the organizers doubled the size of the class — and still turned about 40 people away. This summer, the first group will earn a one-year certificate in business; most are expected to return in the fall to pursue their degrees.

"These are students who would not have come back to school," McManimon said. "Every one of them told us that."

Carlie Berg was one of the first to sign up. "It couldn't have been better timing. I really wanted to go back," she said. Berg, a product coordinator for Jostens, said she has "a really good job." But she'd like to move into management some day, and for that, she knows she'll need a college degree.

When she told her husband, Billy, a corrections officer, that she wanted to go back to school, he decided to join her. So they started FlexPace together, managing work, school and their 1-year-old daughter, Gracie, while awaiting the arrival of their second child.

"It got a little crazy," Berg admits. "I didn't get very much sleep." When she went into labor, she was studying for finals. On Dec. 7, their son Bryar was born — and that night, after visiting hours ended, Berg and her husband finished their accounting exams in the hospital.

"The best part — we both ended the semester with a 4.0," she said. And a baby.

David Rau, a 40-year-old insurance agent and father of four, said he often mused about returning to college but thought it would take forever.

When he heard abut FlexPace, he decided to take the leap. "It's one of those things that always bothered me a little bit," he said. "I've regretted not getting my degree."

His company, Federated Insurance, was so supportive that it sent a dozen employees through the program. Rau said the company has long promoted lifelong learning, so this fit right in. "I'm actually learning a lot about just business in general," he said. "It makes you see the bigger picture."

If he thought he had little free time before, he laughs, he has even less now. But he plans to stick with it. "I do want to get my bachelor's," he said. "I'm committed."

Turner, the program director, readily admits that FlexPace isn't for everyone.

It helps to be a self-starter, for one thing. "They're older students, so you have some maturity that comes with that," he said. "And that makes a difference."

At the same time, he believes it's a lesson in how colleges can be more flexible in meeting the needs of students.

"Higher education has been very slow to respond to that," he says. "That's really what we're trying to do with this."