Nikolai Fjelstad was one of the University of Minnesota's rejects. Now he's a sophomore.

Low grades and an unimpressive 18 on his ACT in high school made him ineligible for the U, which has been raising the academic caliber of its freshman class for years.

So he spent three years at St. Paul College, grew up and won admission to the U in fall 2015 to study landscape architecture. He transferred alongside more than 2,000 other students. Now he's part of a growing body of transfer students whose numbers are changing how the U handles students who don't arrive until after they've missed their chance at a freshman orientation.

A third of undergraduates are transfer students, according to the school's enrollment data. The university has one of the highest populations of undergraduate transfer students in the Big Ten.

Despite their numbers, transfer students continue to face barriers, such as limited access to on-campus housing and lower financial aid, not to mention pressure to graduate on time, according to Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

"It's tough. It's really tough for them to do it [in] two or three years. That's why we've often found that the transfer experience is not as good as the freshman experience," McMaster said. "The real goal is to enhance the transfer experience."

As the university becomes more selective — competing for the "best and brightest" — and expensive, many students start at colleges under the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities umbrella before making the move to the U.

"I don't think people really understand how significant the population is of students who transfer to the University of Minnesota and become graduates," McMaster said.

Since the university's General College was reorganized into the College of Education and Human Development in 2006, the balance between freshman and senior classes has changed dramatically. Fewer freshmen are admitted each year, while the senior class is inflated by students who take an extra year to graduate, plus thousands of transfer students.

McMaster said there are three major reasons why so many students transfer to the university: cost, confusion and competition.

In fall 2015, the average ACT score for the incoming class of freshmen was 28. Since 2000, average ACT scores and high school GPAs have increased in every college that accepts new freshmen, including the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management.

However, students applying to transfer only have to submit their college GPAs. High school grades and ACT scores no longer count.

When he was at Highland Park High School in St. Paul, Fjelstad said, "I was way lost. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was that guy who got C's in high school. You know, C's get degrees, but that's changed."

Changing the experience

Transfer students come in at a disadvantage, so the U made changes to ensure they got support from advisers and peers who could help them navigate a campus of about 30,000 undergraduate students.

"We sort of flipped our program on its head," said Beth Lingren Clark, assistant dean and director of Orientation and First-Year Programs. "It's the validation of the fact that we have a lot of students here, and they all have different needs, and we need to do better in meeting those needs."

Brandon Wheeler, 22, transferred from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2013 to study economics and psychology.

"Transferring from UMD, which was basically a high school size, to the U, which is massive, was pretty tough," he said. "Basically, every day it felt like you're in a new place, just because of the sheer size."

During his time at the U, Wheeler made connections by becoming involved in a fraternity.

"I feel like for me, going into a fraternity was a way to break down that larger community into a smaller community, where I could fit in and find friends," Wheeler said.

Transfer students have concerns much like the incoming freshman class — making friends, meeting people, being academically successful, managing time, commuting to campus, course registration. But there are key differences.

"Engagement for a brand-new freshman looks different for someone who comes in with 70 credits and has a job off-campus," Lingren Clark said. "I think the complexity within the transfer community makes it hard because we have to think about where students are and meet their needs."

In response, many colleges at the U are investing in more transfer advisers.

Transfer advising

Carmen Kurdziel is a transfer adviser in the College of Liberal Arts.

"I think there are a lot of differences in transfer advising, mainly because these students already have college experience," Kurdziel said. "So one thing we do is talk about how the University of Minnesota is different to give them the resources ahead of time."

Part of that involves making sure transfer students don't miss out on internships and other experiences. "Even though students might only have two years, taking advantage of opportunities is something we really stress in our office," Kurdziel said. "We want to start that process right away. Even before they're here, we ask them to think about how they want to get involved."

As his first year at the University of Minnesota comes to a close, Fjelstad is interviewing for summer jobs and internships in landscaping. He is sitting on about $7,000 of debt. Reflecting on his first year, he said he is "surprisingly" passing all of his classes and looking forward to his coursework next year.

"They don't really set you up for the amount of work you're going to get here," he said. "St. Paul College is easy compared to this. But I want a career that I will love, not one I dread going to everyday."

Zoë Peterson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.