Leslie Nicolas assured her parents she could handle $17,000 a year in public university tuition and living expenses. But deep down, Nicolas, the first college-bound member of her immigrant family, knew: “We could never pay that.”

Then, weeks before she was to graduate from Roosevelt High in Minneapolis, a visitor to the school pitched a new Twin Cities private college offering free textbooks, free meals, a free laptop and tuition as low as $1,000 a year.

Dougherty Family College — the University of St. Thomas’ radical experiment in drawing low-income students — is graduating its first class Sunday. With major support from donors, this community college within the university went all out to serve underrepresented students: a recruitment operation reaching into middle schools, with small class sizes and paid internships at Fortune 500 companies.

Campuses in Minnesota and nationally are stepping up efforts to reach low-income students. They are heeding urgent calls for more college-educated workers, bracing for shrinking high school classes that make recruiting down the income ladder essential — and simply trying to do the right thing. St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota joined an initiative backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg to grow the ranks of low-income students on selective campuses.

“It’s really exciting to be on the precipice of this new window of opportunity,” said Rashné Jehangir, a higher education professor at the U. “Issues of access some of us have been working on for decades are now hot topics.”

In Minnesota, Pell Grant-eligible students — generally those with family incomes under $60,000 — make up a third of college students and face a 20-percentage-point graduation gap compared with better-off peers, according to federal data.

Unclaimed money

Named after a St. Thomas alum and key benefactor, Dougherty Family College opened in fall 2017 with a mission to draw promising students who were not finding their way to the St. Paul-based Catholic campus. It costs $15,000 a year instead of almost $45,000 at St. Thomas, though after financial aid students pay a tiny fraction of that.

An ACT score and high GPA are not required. The goal is to graduate students with a liberal arts associate degree and little or no debt — and steer them to St. Thomas or other four-year institutions.

For Nicolas and others at Dougherty, that concept was an instant sell. An accomplished athlete at Roosevelt, Nicolas’ ACT score would not budge beyond 16 after three tries, putting many competitive schools she eyed out of reach.

Fellow Roosevelt student Sahra Warsame, whose Somali refugee family arrived in Minneapolis in the middle of her junior year, knew she wanted to go to college but did not know how to get there. When Dougherty’s admissions director came to pitch the new college a month before graduation, she had not applied to any schools or filled out the FAFSA, the daunting federal college aid form.

DeAmonte Block, a Burnsville High senior, had seen his GPA plummet as he moved four times during his high school career after the death of his grandmother. For all three students, Dougherty’s affordability was key.

On a tight timeline to open its doors, Dougherty welcomed just 107 students in what was supposed to be a 150-student inaugural class in 2017. Its dean, Alvin Abraham, figured with more time to recruit, the following year would bring a flood of applications. But that fall, more than two dozen seats went unfilled and financial aid packages were left unclaimed.

Officials believe some students assume a college based at the private St. Thomas would be too pricey and challenging. So Abraham has enlisted key influencers, including counselors at the Twin Cities’ most diverse high schools and college access programs, such as AchieveMpls, to dispel the preconceptions. He’s also cultivating ties with organizations working with younger students, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Seeking low-income students

Dougherty was modeled closely after Arrupe College at Chicago’s Loyola University. Arrupe launched in 2015 amid recognition that as Loyola had become increasingly selective, it was missing out on gifted students who saw it as out of reach financially and academically, said Arrupe Dean the Rev. Stephen Katsouros. Along with Dougherty Family College, Katsouros says, “We are a big solution to a big problem.”

This month, almost half of Arrupe’s 160-student first class graduated from bachelor’s programs in four years, compared with a third of community college graduates nationally who go on to earn a bachelor’s in six years. Katsouros says Arrupe is helping other campuses replicate the model. But this approach won’t work everywhere: Besides dedicated leaders and a commutable location, campuses need an overachieving fundraising team and generous donors.

More campuses are experimenting with test-optional admissions and free tuition for families below a certain income. As part of Bloomberg’s American Talent Initiative, more than 100 campuses with high graduation rates — including Minnesota’s Carleton College and the College of St. Benedict — have vowed to add 50,000 low-income students by 2025.

A Pew Research study this month showed that a marked increase in low-income college students in the past two decades has largely played out at community colleges and universities that admit all students.

The U has touted a recent effort to fully cover tuition, fees and textbooks for students with family incomes below $50,000 through its Promise Scholarship program. Its College of Education and Human Development is trying new ways to create a sense of belonging, from one-on-one opportunities with faculty to FirstGen Fridays, which celebrate the strengths first-generation students bring to campus, Jehangir said.

Thriving on campus

In its first year on St. Thomas’ downtown Minneapolis campus, Dougherty bled more than a third of its students. Seven left for four-year institutions, some after chafing at the predetermined coursework with few electives — a necessity to keep the program affordable. Many others struggled with the transition to campus and its high demands.

“In year one, we leaned too heavily on the support and the love and the ‘We’re in this together,’ ” Abraham said. “We didn’t do as much of the tough accountability conversations we should have.”

But Nicolas and her friends thrived. They bonded thanks to Dougherty’s cohort model, in which groups of 25 students take classes together. As a freshman, Nicolas made a daily ritual of stopping by the campus tutoring center. She got an internship assisting a physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic that affirmed her interest in the profession.

“I knew I’d need the free meals, the laptop and the bus pass,” Nicolas said. “But I was given opportunities and resources I didn’t even realize I needed.”

Almost 60% of that first class is graduating on time, with most continuing to four-year programs. Applications are up. Relying on philanthropy for half its funding, Dougherty has already amassed an almost $40 million endowment.

Nicolas, Warsame and Block all scored full rides at St. Thomas. At a recent Dougherty scholarship event, St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan  told them, “Our success will be when you graduate with your four-year degree.”