The University of St. Thomas is creating a two-year college for low-income students who have the will but not necessarily the grades to earn a spot in its traditional freshman class.

The program, one of the first of its kind, was approved Thursday by the university’s board of trustees. The cost to individual students will be as low as $1,000 a year.

The new Dougherty Family College is designed to be a pathway for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who dream of a four-year degree but need extra help to get there, said Julie Sullivan, the president of St. Thomas.

“We believe there’s a pressing need in our state right now,” Sullivan said. As a Catholic university, she said, St. Thomas is trying to do its part to close the education attainment gap in Minnesota.

School officials say they were inspired by a similar program, called Arrupe College, which opened last year at Chicago’s Loyola University.

At St. Thomas, the new college will offer 150 students a year the chance to earn a two-year associate degree, with the goal of transferring to a four-year program.

It also is a chance to get their education with minimal debt, officials say. At the new college, tuition will be $15,000 a year, far less than St. Thomas’ traditional program, which is $39,600 a year.

As low-income students, they should qualify for grants and scholarships that cover most of the costs, said Buffy Smith, the associate dean. The neediest students would pay no more than $1,000 a year.

When applying to the new college, students won’t be judged by the same standards as other St. Thomas freshmen, officials say. They won’t, for example, have to take the ACT exam, or show a grade-point average higher than 2.5. The average for incoming freshmen is 3.6, according to Sullivan.

Instead, school officials say they’ll be interviewing every candidate, looking for traits such as resilience and perseverance that can foreshadow success in school.

“We want to know that they have the academic potential,” Sullivan said. “Then, is the attitude there? The college readiness and motivation?”

In this case, the students will attend separate classes, with their own teachers and “wraparound” services such as mentoring and tutoring. The classes will be offered at St. Thomas’ campus in downtown Minneapolis.

Unlike traditional freshmen, they will have little choice of courses, according to Smith, the associate dean. Nor will they live on campus.

Instead, the staff will assign them to a slate of liberal arts courses, including English, math and science, Smith said, to make sure that they are qualified at the end of two years to transfer to a four-year college or university. They’ll also get extra support through what she calls “culturally responsive” instruction that tailors discussions to their cultural backgrounds.

This can be crucial, she said, for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

They’ll also be able to participate in all St. Thomas activities but one: They can’t play in Division III sports teams, which are restricted to students in four-year degree programs, officials said.

The new college is slated to open in the fall of 2017, but until it’s accredited it will not be able to accept applications, Smith said.

The school has applied to the Higher Learning Commission for approval to start offering associate degrees, and the process is expected to take three to nine months.

The college is named after a St. Thomas graduate and trustee, Mike Dougherty, and his wife, Kathy, who donated an undisclosed sum, and were described as the program’s lead benefactors.

St. Thomas reports it has raised $18 million in private donations, and hopes to raise another $3.5 million to $4 million for the new college.