Fall 2021 marks a year of expansion for Bethel’s PSEO program.
By Sarah Bakeman
Greg Maloney sat quietly observing the Community Life Center Aug. 12 as the PSEO Summer Kickoff unfolded around him. The lofty walls of the CLC filled with a reverberating hum from hundreds of little conversations, snaking lines of high school juniors and seniors and doting parents whose hands clutched boxes filled to the brim with loaned textbooks.
In June, Bethel University announced the expansion of its Postsecondary Enrollment Option program, previously only available to high school seniors. Starting in fall 2021, high school juniors and online courses will be incorporated into the program, offering a chance for a broader scope of students to get ahead on earning college credits through Bethel courses. For Maloney, a 16-year-old Saint Agnes School student, this change meant the ability to experience college head-on and expand his education beyond the limits of high school.
“Saint Agnes didn’t have any math classes beyond calc two,” he said. “I think using math in my career would be kind of fun.”
Dr. Julie Finnern, Associate Provost for the College of Arts and Sciences, says she aims to keep students at the heart of every decision she makes. That means providing the strong academic experience and support that students require. With students like Maloney needing assistance from postsecondary institutions, Finnern was met with clear requests from juniors to expand the reach of Bethel’s program. This move, however, does not come without some caution.
“We wanted to make sure that we also had a support system in place,” she said. “That’s why we have a smaller number. We are welcoming up to 24 juniors this year, and then we’ll see how that goes and plan on expanding.”
Fall 2021 enrollment anticipates 154 seniors, making 24 juniors a comparatively small number. Even so, the precautions don’t stop there. Juniors are required to go through an interview process before securing a spot at Bethel. While face-to-face interviews may seem cruel and intimidating for student applicants, Finnern explained how this hurdle is set in place for the benefit of juniors seeking rigorous college courses.
“Their high school graduation could be on the line. If they fail a class, then they’re not getting what they need to graduate high school,” she said. “So, we take our responsibility seriously that it needs to be a good fit, and we set students up for success.”
Sophia Najarian, a junior at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, was individually interviewed by admissions staff. Going in, Najarian had nervous thoughts. As COVID-19 guidelines increased, the opportunity for a normal high school experience diminished. Full-time PSEO appeared as a chance to leap ahead to college, especially as leaving high school became less of a sacrifice. Ultimately, Najarian’s nerves settled as the interview commenced, and she realized it was not even the worst part of the application process.
“I got through it,” she said. “The biggest thing was getting recommendation letters.”
Now, with her spot secured, Najarian’s eyes are focused on the fall semester. Like many other 17-year-olds, Najarian faces uncertainty regarding how she will direct her future. PSEO allows students to dabble in a variety of college classes at the expense of the Minnesota Department of Education, permitting high schoolers like Najarian to decide if a particular major or college itself is a good fit for them. Finnern describes the opportunity for students to experiment with college with less financial risk as one of the main appeals of PSEO.
“For some PSEO students, it can be an important bridge to give college a try,” she said. “They may not consider themselves someone who is going to go on to college, and then they try a PSEO class, and they think ‘oh, I can do this.’”
While the introduction of high school juniors to college classes is well on its way, Bethel is looking to broaden its impact in high schools even further. Fall 2021 fosters the beginnings of online options for PSEO students, but this will expand even further in fall 2022 to include typical high school graduation requirements. Many students live too far away to commute to Bethel, and juniors are unable to live on campus, so the development of online courses may present itself as an alternative for PSEO students in the coming years.
Dual enrollment is another expanding offer extended to high school students. This allows qualified high school instructors to teach Bethel courses in their own classrooms with help from Bethel faculty. Students are able to get both high school and college credits without jumping between two campuses. Finnern outlined the broadening of Bethel’s interaction with high school students.
“We are continuing to increase the number of schools with whom we have that kind of partnership,” she said. “For example, this year … we’re offering a couple of Spanish classes at Stillwater High School.”
While Finnern welcomes the incoming commuting juniors with excitement, the future of early college education looks to be a decreasingly committal decision. This blending of college and high school could be a welcome change to prospective PSEO students in positions like Maloney’s.
“I like the education at Saint Agnes,” said Maloney. “It’s just that they don’t have certain classes that I want or need.”
For those who do not want to say goodbye to their high schools just yet, the possibility of expanded dual enrollment and online options is enticing. Going into fall 2021, however, the focus largely remains on welcoming the incoming junior PSEO students.