Minnesota knows it needs to narrow an educational achievement gap that is among the worst in the nation, and many have been working hard on that challenge.
But now help is coming from an unexpected quarter. The University of St. Thomas, one of the premier Catholic higher learning institutions in the country, is stepping up in a way that could have enormous impact in coming years.
St. Thomas, which regularly attracts some of Minnesota’s best students, will open a new, two-year college in Fall 2017 that will be unlike anything this community has seen. Students who show promise but lack the foundation for college will be connected with mentors, tutors, health services, paid internships and life coaching that will prepare them to tackle rigorous upper division work, a four-year degree and, eventually, careers.
The approach is one that shows a deep thoughtfulness about hurdles some disadvantaged students face that go far beyond academics. Through generous donations and a strong commitment, St. Thomas will keep tuition low — less than half the normal amount and enough support that the neediest students will pay no more than $1,000 per year. That’s critical, since many low-income students fail to complete their degrees because they cannot afford tuition and related expenses.
Businessman Mike Dougherty is providing a significant amount of start-up money for what will be Dougherty Family College. That’s because he knows what it’s like to need a second chance. An orphan by 12, Dougherty washed out in his first college attempt. It wasn’t until after he’d done a stint in the Army, where they discovered his learning disability and taught him to cope with it, that Dougherty felt prepared to try again. St. Thomas, he said, gave him that chance, and now he is determined to provide it for others.
“We want to do this right,” Dougherty said. “Every student will get a mentor, a computer, a bus pass, two meals a day. We’ll have a nurse on staff.” Students’ days will start with a leadership development class, and one day a week they’ll work at corporate internships designed to offer both pay and opportunities.
But it will take help from a generous community to ensure the success of this experiment. St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan says donors will be asked to contribute, and corporations will be asked to provide the internships.
“This has to break even,” Sullivan said. “We’re not intending to make money off this, but it has to be self-sustaining without draining resources from our other programs.” This is the chance for Tommie alums and others to show that a wraparound approach like this can help students in need reach their full potential.
The 150 students admitted each year will have to work hard. The investment in them will be high and so will the expectations. But the chance to rewrite the story of their lives will be immeasurable.