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How Minnesota colleges are teaming up to give students a cheaper path to 4-year degrees

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Steven Ahmad, 26, is a junior at Concordia University St. Paul.
Steven Ahmad, 26, is a junior at Concordia University St. Paul, where he's pursuing a major in graphic design. He transferred from Minneapolis Community and Technical College, part of a growing trend of private colleges making agreements with community colleges for easier transfers.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Steven Ahmad spent his first few years after high school sweating it out in a restaurant kitchen. 

"Being a line cook was definitely good motivation of like 'Hey, let's go to school,'" he said. "You can't take too many long nights of that job. And so for me it was like, let's find something better to do."

So three years ago at age 23, he enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He finished his associates degree, and decided to go for a four-year degree. He looked at several state schools, but he settled on Concordia University in St. Paul for a simple reason

"All my credits transferred — all 66 transferred to Concordia," he said. "Which was a big deal."

It's a big deal because it can sometimes be difficult to transfer community college credits to a four-year school.

But Concordia, like a growing number of private schools in the state, has made the path from community college into its program as seamless as possible. 

Schools realize they can bolster enrollment numbers by looking to community colleges. 

Kristin Vogel is the associate vice president for traditional enrollment management at Concordia. She said transfers are part of school's mission and business model.

"Of the 3,000 undergraduate students about 2,000 of those are transfer students," she said.

Concordia's enrollment increased nearly 60 percent between 2011 and 2015, as most other private schools in the state saw enrollment decline.

And students, in turn, are seeing a new — and cheaper — route to a bachelor's degree.

"It's maybe someone that always knew they wanted to come to Concordia but it was a more affordable option to start at a community college," Vogel said.

Larry Pogemiller, the commissioner of Minnesota's Office of Higher Education said he expects more schools to establish clear transfer agreements as a way to attract students.

"So it's got kind of all the benefits that you would want for a student," he said. "A less expensive pathway, kind of encouragement to excel and do well at your course work and then a certain guarantee that you could get into a four-year institution after your two-year path."

Augsburg College, through its "Auggie Plan" starts working with students at three partner community colleges even before they walk onto the Minneapolis campus. Unlike some transfer agreements, Augsburg's plan doesn't lock students into a major before they arrive. If students take the required general education courses and keep a 2.75 GPA, they'll automatically get in.

Anoka-Ramsey Community College President Kent Hanson said through their partnership with Augsburg, which was announced last week, students can really cut the cost of their first two years.

"When you look at a four-year degree and you calculate our $144 a credit and it becomes more reasonable for students to get a four-year degree," he said.

This route also offers a path to a bachelor's degree for students who might not have had the grades in high school to make it into a private college, but may find their academic footing in community college.

Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow said those transfers enrich his campus.

"People bring to us different gifts and forms of excellence," he said. "If you test them and judge them only on standards that have been handed down to us, you will miss a lot of talent and wisdom and a lot of experience that actually our country needs."

Both Augsburg and Concordia offer scholarships to community college transfer students, to lower costs and help them stay enrolled.

Concordia's Kristin Vogel said, on average, transfer students at the school have equal or higher GPAs to those who are there all four years, and they're also more likely to complete their degree.

Steven Ahmad, the junior transfer at Concordia, has his sights set on graduation and is already networking for a graphic design career.

He said while he's happy to have his line cook days behind him, they do keep him motivated.

"It's definitely in the back of my mind," he said. "Especially if you have a late night or maybe I'm doing something I don't want to necessarily do at that moment. Just putting that in the back of my mind and knowing that I'm here for a reason and purpose — I'm going to craft a better life for myself."

Augsburg expects to add another school to the "Auggie Plan" this spring.