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Pathways Program at Saint Mary’s helps adults use array of credits to continue education

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota has figured out how to make it easier for students to transfer from two- and four-year schools.

Saint Mary's University's Pathways Program aims to make it easier for students to complete a bachelor's degree.
Courtesy of Saint Mary's University

As a teen, Robin Gates had imagined going to college. Four months after graduating from high school, however, she gave birth to a baby boy. Blue-collar roots notwithstanding, the independent Gates was determined not “to be a statistic,” so she took a job on an assembly line, the best one she could find.

Particularly for someone her age or older, the rest of the story typically has a predictable outcome: an entry level job that won’t pay for child care and tuition, and a paycheck-to-paycheck existence that stymies efforts to get the degree that’s the ticket out.

Robin Gates
Robin Gates

The first part of Gates’ story is fairly commonplace. But thanks to the Pathways Program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, it has a happy, tidy ending.

A year from now she will get that college degree, a B.S. in police sciences. Miraculously, the process will have taken her the same four years it originally would have and will cost tens of thousands less than it might have.

“With a degree, there’s a lot more room for advancement to managerial positions, as a team leader,” she said. “In corporate America nowadays really you need an M.A. to be competitive.”

A few years after graduating high school, Gates got a certificate from the Minnesota School of Business and went to work as an administrative assistant at Target. She did well there, but it was made clear to her from the start that she would need a college degree to move up. To that end, Target reimburses employee tuition — something Gates tried to take advantage of right away. Helping working adults has long been part of Saint Mary’s’ mission, and someone in human resources suggested it might be a good fit.

Here Gates hit a typical stumbling block. She did not realize that her career training at the private, for-profit business school might not transfer automatically as college credit. It turned out she was looking at starting over and facing years of night school.

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Admissions counselors sometimes refer to this moment as a “stop-out,” the moment frustrated older students throw up their hands and quit. They might have started at the University of Minnesota but found it too big. They might then try a community college or a school in Greater Minnesota. Ten or 15 years later, when the lack of a degree has cost them enough opportunities they are ready to buckle down, the resulting crazy-quilt of credits may turn out to be worthless.

Disheartened, Gates wangled herself a transfer to Target’s Asset Protection division. Every time her review came around, though, the HR people needled her about getting a degree. That seemed pretty far off to her, but it also seemed crazy to forgo the tuition subsidy.

Gates enrolled at North Hennepin Community College, where she expected to earn an associate’s degree this fall. After that, her plan was to enroll at a four-year public school, where she figured she would need another five or six years to graduate.

But she also started talking to administrators at Saint Mary’s who, in the intervening years, had thought long and hard about the issues common to prospective students like her. Saint Mary’s is a private university, but it needed to figure out how to make it easier for students to transfer from one of the Minnesota State Colleges and University system’s two-year schools.

With tuition skyrocketing at four-year schools and nontraditional students quickly becoming mainstream, someone needed to do the legwork to figure out from day one which community-college courses would fulfill which Saint Mary’s degree prerequisites, how much can be gotten out of the way at the less expensive schools and how to ensure that students can go on for graduate work without finding that their undergrad work needs repeating.

If this sounds simple, it’s anything but. Most colleges are finicky about what credits transfer, and most students don’t know until they have finished their first two years whether English 101 at a given community college will be judged up to snuff by their chosen four-year program. Quarters and semesters don’t count for the same credit.

Other Minnesota private colleges seeking to ease the transition for community college students hoping to go on for a B.A. include Concordia University, Bethel University and the College of St. Scholastica.   

Saint Mary’s re-evaluated Gates’ business-school transcript and accepted some of her courses. That shaved a year off her time at North Hennepin — a two-year degree can take years longer a course at a time. Saint Mary’s schedule of accelerated evening classes, which meet intensively in seven-week cycles, plus a summer-program scholarship put her in a position to graduate from college in December 2013, two years after she enrolled.

Saint Mary’s has worked with older adult learners for two decades, said Ian Pannkuk, interim director of admissions. Because of the recent recession, the number of displaced workers hoping to retrain has shot up. Pathways, the formal effort to smooth their way, is about to celebrate its first birthday.

“It’s almost like an extra layer of advising,” he said. “Our long-term goal is not only to help with transfers from the associate’s degree-level to a B.A., but on to the graduate level.”

Saint Mary’s now has four staff members working with community colleges to make the degree-completion process as transparent as possible from the start. Ideally, the St. Mary’s people are on site at two-year schools with programming that complements the university’s so that a student can keep in touch with a single contact.

Inver Hills Community College is a good example, according to Pannkuk. Most students should be able to complete an AA degree in business, allied health care or paramedic sciences that will set them up perfectly to earn the corresponding B.A. quickly.

The university has informal relationships with a number of community colleges and is in the process of talking with more. Right now, it has strong paths for students from Minneapolis Community & Technical College, Rochester Community & Technical College, Anoka Ramsey, North Hennepin, Normandale and Inver Hills community colleges, Hennepin, Dakota County and Anoka technical colleges and St. Paul and Century colleges.

Because Pathways students go through a preliminary credit transfer before they formally apply to Saint Mary’s, they can usually complete their prerequisites for $180-$190 per credit, about half St. Mary’s cost. This brings the total cost of a Saint Mary’s degree down to about $32,000 — less than a single year’s tuition at many of its private, liberal arts competitors.

Because of her Target benefits, Gates expects to graduate with about $15,000 in debt. She’s grateful, but just as appreciative of the personal relationships that this super-charged advising process has created.

The same academic adviser who re-evaluated her trade-school work and helped her find the right North Hennepin courses checks in with her frequently, tracking her progress and suggesting scheduling strategies. “He’s only ever an e-mail away,” she said.