Peer Review

St. Catherine University’s Weekend College: Open Doors, Open Minds, Open Weekends

St. Catherine University (St. Kate’s) admissions leaders like to share the chapters of the school’s mythology that capture prospective students’ imagination and transform them into incoming students. One such story is the construction of Mendel Hall in 1927. At the time, it was a radical idea for a women’s college to have an entire building dedicated to the sciences, and it is a testament to the foresight and willpower of first president Antonia McHugh. Not only did she secure a $100,000 Rockefeller grant for construction, but thwarted St. Paul city fathers’ plans to extend Prior Avenue through campus by placing Mendel squarely in its path.

St. Kate’s staff and faculty also are quick to reference how they’re figuratively and literally standing on a foundation built on the achievements of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ), the college founders—women who were undaunted by difficulty and bold in their dreams for the education of women. The Weekend College—from its creation in 1979 to today—is immersed in this mythology even as leaders re-imagine it for this new millennium.

Untapped Talent Equals Untapped Opportunity

St. Kate’s sixth president, Sister Alberta Huber, CSJ, who served from 1964 to 1979, was a pioneer who welcomed change—a valuable trait during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s. During that era, women redefined themselves both inside and outside the home, and St. Kate’s responded to the times with new majors, continuing education programs, and new buildings. Sister Alberta was aware that many women had never been able to attend college or had to drop out before completing their degree. At that time, statistics in Minnesota showed that only 7 percent of women had earned a degree beyond high school.

“I see that as a great need for the whole nation—an immense resource of talent that’s left untapped, and we have a lot to give them,” Sister Alberta said in the institutional history, More Than a Dream, published in 1992. In 1977, during strategic planning for St. Kate’s, Sister Alberta queried the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet about a weekend program to draw these adult learners. Her memo, set forth in her elegant cursive handwriting, set the wheels in motion: “What are the possibilities of a weekend college here? Commuters only—on Saturdays—for one or two specific programs? Degree programs? Non-degree programs?”

Open Minds

With the mission to educate women, St. Kate’s had grown from a handful of students in its first year—1905—to nearly 2,000 by the late 70s. During the early 1970s, adults filled the institution’s continuing education short courses and workshops to capacity. However, despite the success, faculty and staff were keenly aware of all that continuing education’s programs couldn’t offer to potential students. On-campus discussions about ways to serve these adult learners began to percolate.

Sister Alberta relied on Sister Therese Sherlock, the director of continuing education, for her knowledge about adult learners and their unique needs to help shape early discussions. Sister Therese’s recommendations called for a Weekend College model that would

  • serve working adults and those living some distance away,
  • create a sense of community,
  • approximate the environment and experience of the “day” program for traditional-age students, and
  • increase retention for nontraditional–aged students.

In 1978, the president charged a task force with exploring the possibilities and challenges St. Kate’s would face in developing a weekend program for working adults, and with creating a plan that would outline the program’s structure and content.

Academic Quality Foremost

St. Catherine University Professor Emerita Catherine Lupori, a member of the task force and chair of the English department at the time, said the speed at which advocates were able to move was surprising. “There was a lot of talk in the faculty lounge about Weekend College,” she said. “We wanted to be the first college (in Minnesota) to offer it.” The task force worked quickly to give St. Kate’s the competitive edge. From an initial meeting in December 1978, the group presented its plan to the Educational Policies Committee in February 1979.

Although speed was a consideration, Lupori said the task force members refused to take shortcuts on academic quality and the commitment to the liberal arts in Weekend College.

“We were insistent that the same faculty teaching in the day program would be teaching in the weekend program to ensure quality and that students would be academically challenged,” she said. “That came up again and again.”

Early faculty support came from Sister Mary Thompson, an alumna and then chair of the chemistry department, who had earned advanced degrees and would become one of the first faculty members to teach in St. Kate’s Weekend College.“I believe firmly in this college as a college for the education of women and I believe we should continue to stress our concern for women’s education for the nontraditional fields,” Sister Mary reported in the St. Kate’s internal newsletter, Currents, in 1979. “This kind of weekend approach will provide for a group of women who cannot be reached in any other way.”

Sister Therese credited faculty members on the committee for giving the task force the credibility it would need to build faculty consensus. “We had highly respected faculty members on the task force; otherwise we would never have got off the ground,” she said. “I remember the meeting where the proposed curriculum was approved. We got a standing ovation from the faculty—unheard of!”

Sister Therese added that the appointment of alumna Mary Alice Muellerlie to lead Weekend College was an additional strategic move by Sister Alberta. A former member of the faculty, Muellerlie’s creativity and foresight engaged faculty in the new venture. “Mary Alice holds faculty in high esteem as the real center of the academic experience. Faculty knew that and trusted her,” Sister Therese said. “She is the kind of administrator who really serves faculty, and this worked well for Weekend College.”

Following the end of her tenure in 1982, St. Kate’s created the Mary Alice Muellerleile Student Leadership Award, which is presented to a Weekend College student for outstanding leadership and service to her peers and to the university.

Open Doors

Launched in fall 1979, Weekend College offered four baccalaureate programs: business administration, promotional communications, social work, and theology with a religious education orientation. Classes met for three and a half hours every other weekend with independent study assignments outside of class. The academic year consisted of three fourteen-week terms scheduled early September through June. St. Kate’s had modest expectations for the first class, predicting no more than twenty students. So when 127 enthusiastic students showed up for classes on the first day, all involved knew they had found a way to reach adult learners.

Lupori vividly recalled the heady mood in the faculty lounge following the first day of classes. “I will never forget that exultation, that ‘high,’” she said. “We knew we had really tapped into something good.”

Hitting the Target Market

As forecasted, all but four of the first student class worked outside the home. Ranging in age from 16 to 56, the women averaged a median five years since their last formal education experience. Five of the students were widows, sixty were married, thirty-nine were single and twenty were divorced. That initial group of students had a total of 201 children, two of whom were born during the first Weekend College term.

Six ambitious students took three courses while the remainder enrolled in one or two courses the first trimester. Company educational reimbursements supported fifty-six students; another twenty-four received financial aid. By spring, the number of enrolled students rose to 296. That early success attracted community support and increased faculty interest in teaching courses. By the end of the first year, an additional thirty-eight course were added, led by thirty-one additional faculty.

A three-year Otto Bremer Foundation grant to support faculty and staff development allowed St. Kate’s to conduct workshops on improving teaching strategies and learning outcomes in the weekend format. Weekend College students were also invited to share their learning experiences at these workshops to improve the program.

Ongoing Assessment a Priority

In the 1979–80 annual report, Weekend College Director Muerllerlie outlined goals for the program:

  • attract students whose academic ability and performance compared favorably with day students
  • integrate Weekend College into the institution as a whole
  • ensure quality education by regular evaluation and assessment of students’ needs
  • provide faculty and staff development
  • ensure that Weekend College was fiscally self-sufficient

Her annual report also discussed the evaluation of courses and faculty that would drive the development of services and program expansion.

She noted that student evaluations of faculty and the coursework were very positive. High marks also went to faculty—86.7 percent of students rated their instructors “effective or unusually effective.” Faculty evaluations of students praised their intellectual capabilities, although faculty felt some were underprepared for the return to academic life. Both evaluations showed that both faculty and students thought that the amount of class time was less than what was needed to meet course objectives.

Muerllerlie concluded that the mix of coursework at the 100, 200, and 300 levels would need to be reconsidered with increased academic advising. An administrative advisory group was formed in fall 1980 to ensure that weekend students had the resources they needed to succeed, including extended hours in the financial aid and registrar offices as well as the learning center and bookstore.

Controlling Their Career Trajectory

For students, Weekend College was the opportunity to control the pace of their education. A Weekend College alumna, journalist and career counselor Amy Lindgren, described the long-term effect her college experience had on her life. Writing for the university magazine, SCAN, in 2008, Lindgren—an undergraduate student in the ’80s who juggled three jobs and her mother’s terminal illness—said Weekend College’s flexible schedule gave her the opportunity to focus.

Oddly, I remember the feeling of Weekend College more than the material we covered, the delicious sense that everyone in the classroom was as serious about each class as I was, and the absolute knowledge that I was in control of my own learning experience. That sense of control spread to other areas of my life and led me to start the company that I still operate today. When I give talks I sometimes say that I opened my business while I was in college, which, while technically true, is somewhat misleading. Yes, I was still a student, but I was very much in the world, thanks to class scheduling that made such a thing possible.

With the formation of the Weekend College Student Advisory Board in 1987, students were able to more directly address their needs to administrators. In addition to addressing concerns, the board also organizes hospitality events, distributes developmental grants for students to attend conferences or other professional development opportunities, works with the Access and Success program to serve students who are parents, and collaborates with alumnae and the development staff to help Weekend College students become more involved as alumnae.

Unique Format, Unique Challenges

During the 1980s, Weekend College expanded to enroll more than five hundred students. The number of courses offered soared from 99 to 170, and programs in several areas—including art, music, philosophy, physics, finance, and economics—were expanded or tested. Occupational therapy and information management ranked with business administration and communications as the top programs attracting students.

Workshops continued to help faculty grapple with presenting curriculum in the weekend format, mindful that the format presented unique curriculum challenges—particularly in the sciences. Patricia Dunlop, associate professor of chemistry, explained the Kitchen Chemistry course created by chemistry department chair Sister Mary Thompson. The course would send students home with independent study assignments to perform experiments with home chemicals. This satisfied the lab requirement in the general science elective.

“The experiments were labs that students could do in their own kitchens, with household chemicals and fabrics they had around the house,” said Dunlop. When manufacturers changed their formulations, faculty assembled lab buckets with all the components necessary to perform the experiments. Working parents could involve their children in the experiments too,” she said. “Nothing was too dangerous.”

New Millennium, New Strategies

That same inventiveness expressed by faculty in the early days of Weekend College is still evident today. Mathematical Sciences and Engineering Assistant Professor Yvonne Ng and Associate Dean of Education Lori Maxfield team-teach an Engineering In Your World class for education majors.

The class combines engineering concepts and classroom activities with pedagogy discussions. After learning science principles and classroom techniques, students translate what they’ve learned into elementary classroom strategies and tactics for teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. “We had to lobby for five-hour classes instead of the standard three-and-a-half hours because the engineering activities are so time-intensive,” said Ng, who added, “For some students, the introduction to engineering is unlike any other class experience. Managing the face-to-face time in class is very important because of the dialogue necessary to help students feel comfortable with the hands-on engineering activities.”

The Ng–Maxfield team is also exploring Skype and other online tools to create Thompson’s chemistry bucket in a virtual environment. Currently they utilize the university’s Blackboard platform to videotape class lectures so that students can review the content as many times as they need and on their own time. But Ng acknowledges that dialogue is still at the heart of the Weekend College experience. “Discussion is still important,” said Ng. “We will often start an activity in class and have students take it home to finish. Or we’ll work on techniques in class and then have them build something on their own to practice those techniques.”

Quality Hinges on Faculty

Faculty evaluations and course assessments support a culture of quality teaching and continuous curriculum improvement. Honored and rewarded for their dedication to students, faculty at St. Kate’s are committed and accomplished mentors and scholars and are critical to Weekend College student retention.

“They make you feel important, and they encourage you to work hard, keep going, and get it done,” said Cheryl Kohls, a business administration major. “Even though I have not yet gotten my business degree, management at my place of employment recognizes that I am working toward it. I have gotten three promotions since I started at St. Kate’s. I believe my bosses are aware I’ve been taking courses that have an immediate impact on my career. Communication courses have greatly helped me improve my writing and speaking skills. Leadership is always brought up in every course that I’ve taken, even Women’s History. (‘If they could overcome all of their obstacles, so can you!’). I believe that my career will continue to move forward as long as I keep working toward my degree.”

“The professors have been amazing. I haven’t had one who doesn’t appear to take a very serious interest in me,” said Angela Rosendahl, a current St. Kate’s elementary education major. “I have been able to realize dreams that three years ago weren’t even known to me.” Rosendahl discovered a love of biology that led her to participate in a field study experience at the Heath and Marjorie Angelo Coast Range Reserve Project in northern California during summer 2010.

“My research experience, the STEM program and Dr. (Tony) Murphy and Dr. (Jill) Welter have made me see what I am capable of doing. My confidence has soared tremendously,” Rosendahl said. “I am doing everything I planned and more.”

New Millennium, New Challenges

In 2010, St. Catherine University’s Weekend College offerings have grown to nineteen majors, ten minors, and four certificate programs. During weekend sessions, parking is at a premium and the campus bustles with students attending to appointments in university administrative offices, working on computers in the library and learning center, or participating in the student advisory board or other activities.

St. Kate’s Weekend College’s highest enrollment was in 2000 at 954; in 2010, 776 students enrolled. Once alone in the upper Midwest market, Weekend College now operates in a rapidly expanding and highly competitive national marketplace for the very desirable, adult nontraditional student. Based locally and nationally, for-profit and nonprofit institutions offer a variety of nontraditional formats for baccalaureate education and certificates. These players offer a wide range of scheduling, semester, and delivery formats, along with competitive tuition and liberal transfer policies, including well-defined articulation agreements with community and technical colleges.

From College to University

Over the past three years, St. Kate’s master academic reorganization created an integrated university comprising four schools and three colleges with a women’s liberal arts college at its heart. The College of St. Catherine also became St. Catherine University in June 2009, reflecting the institution’s complexity and growth.

This transformation, as well as the market pressures that have affected higher education as a whole, have provided the impetus for Weekend College leaders to reenvision Weekend College and consider a variety of options, including weekday evening classes, online courses or hybrid online/on-campus courses, as well as accelerated programs and professional certificates.

“Our vision is to become the first place professional women go to for their ongoing professional development and lifelong learning,” said Joan Robertson, director of Weekend College. “We want to expand the spectrum of adult learners at St. Kate’s, but we don’t want to lose our core audience: women who have never had the opportunity to attend college or finish their degree.”

Student Survey Lights the Path to the Future

A Weekend College student survey conducted in late 2009 has provided administrators and faculty with insights into what students value about their educational experience and what they’d change. More than 72 percent of Weekend College students surveyed reported they would register for courses offered on weeknights in addition to the weekend schedule. Students were also clear in their preferences for class delivery. Blended courses that included both online and on-campus classes were preferred over fully online courses in both major fields of study and the liberal arts core curriculum.

“The survey confirms what we know attracts students to St. Kate’s. It’s not a siloed experience. It’s about community,” Robertson said. “The results also reinforce what we know about the way women learn best—as part of a community. We see technology as an important component of educational support, but not the primary mechanism for teaching and learning.”

Robertson also said that the liberal arts core curriculum—which brings together students from across majors—is essential to fostering community because the courses develop students’ critical thinking and communication skills. “I tell students: ‘You have not come here to get a watered-down education!’”

As St. Kate’s staff and faculty complete an intense process of reimagining and transforming the program into its twenty-first-century iteration, Robertson affirms that the vision Sister Alberta and her contemporaries had for the St. Catherine University Weekend College—to provide access to higher education to adult learners not served by traditional means—is still central to the university’s mission.

Julie Michener is the media and public relations manager at St. Catherine University; Amy Lindgren is the president of Prototype Career Service and an alumna of St. Catherine University; Greg Steenson is the associate dean of admissions and market development at St. Catherine University; Joan Robertson is the director of Weekend College at St. Catherine University.


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