MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A new Twin Cities college focused on closing the opportunity gap just graduated its first class.

The Dougherty Family College is part of the University of St. Thomas. Students there earn an associate’s degree for as little as $1,000 a year. Admissions officials say the average student pays roughly $2,000, which includes books, a laptop, two meals a day, and free rides on Metro Transit.

“I think when they started to say free laptop, and your tuition could be as little as $1,000, I started to question how this was possible,” said DFC graduate Kelly Saybe.

Saybe was the very first student enrolled at DFC, and part of the first generation in her family to go to college.

DFC’s goal was to limit barriers to success, creating an environment where students just have to show up ready to learn. The overall cost is $15,000 a year, much of which is paid for through grants and the University of St. Thomas’ endowment.

Teron Buford, who helps lead admissions, says 61 students graduated, of the 107 in the inaugural class. By comparison, the National Center for Education Statistics shows 32 percent of students who enrolled in an associate’s program earned their degree in three years.

Still, Buford hopes the 57 percent graduation rate will grow with the program.

“We admitted students and were worried they might have some academic struggles, but we thought that maybe we could support them,” Buford said. “And we just found, being so young, that there’s a specific type of student—a student with a specific background and history—that can be really successful here.”

The opportunity to be more selective is already starting to reveal itself. Buford estimates 200-300 people applied for DFC in 2018. A year later, that number doubled. There are 150 spots available per class, per year.

“I get to say yes a lot to students,” said Buford. “I get to say yes to students who look like me, remind me of me, have a similar lived experience that I had, and that’s important to me because often times, I was told no. And I knew I was a hard worker, and I knew I was a smart kid. I knew I could do it if someone just took a chance on me.”

Each of the 61 graduates will transfer into four-year bachelors programs across the Twin Cities. Buford says roughly half will transfer into the University of St Thomas.

As an added incentive, 10 DFC students are offered full tuition to St Thomas. Saybe is one of those students. She said it didn’t feel real until graduation day.

“I know my mom was crying,” said Saybe. “Not just for our family, but for the people in our home country [of Honduras] to sort of look back and say, ‘yeah, I want to be like them someday,’ and it’s extremely possible. Nothing is impossible, and so for my mom, it was just all about seeing our hard work. Seeing how driven we are to make our dreams possible.”

Christiane Cordero