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There aren’t many private two-year colleges in the country.

Just about 200 offer associate degree programs despite the overwhelming prevalence of public community colleges, but at least two private universities are expanding into that arena.

The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota is launching a two-year college for low-income students, while Yeshiva University in New York City is offering an associate program for students who couldn't meet the admissions requirements for its bachelor's programs but are still interested in attending the institution.

“In the Twin Cities there is a large and persistent education achievement gap,” said Julie Sullivan, president of St. Thomas. “Not every segment is completing education and having access to job opportunities that might lift them out of poverty, so we have an issue in our community and it’s talked about around the country. … Zip code is the bigger predictor of college achievement.”

So the Roman Catholic university is creating the Dougherty Family College, which will open next fall and offer an associate degree in liberal arts. The new college is being created with the help of more than $18 million that was raised in private donations. The university is awaiting approval from its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, before it starts accepting applications.

But the new college is specifically for students who display a high level of financial need and have at least a 2.5 grade point average in high school.

Having a high level of financial need is a big sticking point for the new college, since students will only be expected to pay about $1,000 in tuition. That’s based on a $15,000 tuition price tag to attend the college and a fully qualified Pell Grant student receiving about $8,000 in financial aid and about $6,000 in scholarship, Sullivan said, adding that it’s designed so that students have “some skin in the game.” Undergraduate tuition at the university is about $38,000 a year for eight courses.

“This is best suited for students right out of high school who have shown some academic progress but haven’t demonstrated their full academic potential,” Sullivan said. “This is a program that is going to be very structured and holistic. There won’t be a lot of choices. They’ll be in classes and stay in the cohort model of learning. Our faculty and full-time mentors and coaches are only there for these students.”

By “structured” Sullivan means that students will attend the college full time, four days a week and take additional first-year college experience courses that focus on study skills, time management, financial literacy, professional development and etiquette.

They’re also developing a once-a-week work program so students can experience working in businesses in the Twin Cities.

The new associate degree will also meet Minnesota’s statewide transfer requirements, so students can either continue at St. Thomas or enter the state’s public university system as juniors.

“There are people who really want that four-year degree and [are] just not ready to be successful in some of these gateways we currently have into that degree,” Sullivan said. “This won’t be right for everybody, but closing the educational attainment gap and closing the prosperity gap isn't a competitive sport. Everyone needs to step up and put an oar in the water.”

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, another private university is establishing a two-year program to help students reach their completion goals faster.

Yeshiva University, a Jewish institution located in Manhattan, is also launching a two-year program in business that would award an associate of science degree in management next fall.

“This is for students who are really not yet ready for a baccalaureate program,” said Selma Botman, the university’s provost. “It’s not [an] open-admissions program and not special needs, but it’s a program for students who may want to complete higher education after two years or who may want to matriculate into an undergraduate business school and complete a bachelor’s degree.”

Yeshiva is modeling its new two-year program on the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs initiative. That widely heralded program encourages students to attend full time, promotes classes that focus on goal setting and study skills, and uses intrusive advising. Botman previously served as provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs in the CUNY system.

“We’re looking at solid [C-graded] students who haven’t hit their stride yet, so by adapting what we see in research and [what] other schools do for this particular group, we want to focus on them and see that they thrive,” said Paul Russo, dean of Yeshiva’s Katz School of Graduate and Professional Studies.

Part of the program will also include getting students a chance to experience the New York City business world by visiting start-ups and integrating courses focused on incubation and global commerce.

Tuition, however, will remain the same for the associate degree course as it is to attend the university, Botman said, citing the expense to run the program and provide support, as well as the requirement that students live in the dorms and participate in campus activities.

“We struggled for a long time in higher education with community colleges getting students through,” Russo said. “There’s been enough success out there that we now feel the time is right for us to pursue this option -- it’s not simply another program. We’re building in intrusive advising, a data collection structure so we can monitor what’s going on." 

For this group of students, the university wants to pay more attention to them, he said. 

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