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Minnesota's private colleges opening up to community college students

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Selena Moua visited St. Catherine University
Selena Moua, who recently attended Valencia College in Florida, visited St. Catherine University this week where she's hoping to pursue a nursing degree.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Six private Minnesota colleges held open houses this week to recruit transfers from community colleges to their schools. What used to be a tricky and frustrating process, is becoming somewhat easier as colleges find they need more diversity and steadier enrollment.

At the check-in desk at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, potential transfer students from community colleges talked about what brought them there. Lindsey Harris started earning college credits while in high school. The Eagan resident continued on that path after graduation and now is considering her next step. Harris has two factors on her mind.

"Cost would be the main thing, also, is it close to home, because I plan on commuting there," Harris said.

Cheryl Wald, of Rush City, first started at a community college 20 years ago. She's re-enrolled and is looking to pursue a bachelor's degree in medical diagnostic sonography, but she wonders how many credits she'll have to retake and whether she can get in the program at all.

A student takes notes during an information session.
A student takes notes during an information session Monday afternoon at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Twin Cities native Selena Moua started at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, then transferred to Valencia Community College in Florida.

"Part of it is just finding out what I want to do for my career and I settled on nursing," Moua said. "I looked at the nursing programs at different schools and compared everything and I just thought St. Kate's would be a good choice."

Students like Moua, Harris and Wald start at community college for a number of reasons. Tuition often is cheaper than other higher education institutions. You don't need great grades to get in. And for older students, it can offer more scheduling flexibility and locations close by.

John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, says colleges across the country need to boost sagging enrollment.

"In a lot of states like Minnesota, the high school student population is flat or declining and it's becoming harder and harder for universities to find new freshmen," Fink said.

Jennifer Searles, a transfer programs coordinator.
Jennifer Searles, a transfer programs coordinator at St. Catherine University, leads a break out session on nursing Monday.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Over the last few years, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, as well as several of the state's private schools, tried to smooth out the transfer process. Several private colleges, like Augsburg and Hamline, have articulation agreements with local community colleges to make clear how certain course studies will transfer into their schools. Transfer students make up about a quarter of the students at Minnesota Private College Council schools.

"One of the things I've seen change in say the last 10 to 15 years is our outreach to them," said Jen Olsen Krengel, director of undergraduate admissions at Hamline University in St. Paul. "And I think that's true across the spectrum or across the network of colleges and universities, that we recognize the value they bring to the campus community."

Hamline and St. Kate's make scholarship money and financial aid available to more transfer students. They also help students who are thinking about transferring map out the best community college courses toward four-year credits.

Current Hamline student An Garagiola-Bernier worked her way through Century College while dealing with a lot of personal setbacks. But her college experience helped her see possibilities in education, and life.

"There's avenues to make everything work. And I think really the most important thing is to look at what you want to do, what your career goals are and to look at schools that match those and that can really help you hone skills that will make you successful in the long term," Garagiola-Bernier said.

Garagiola-Bernier plans to graduate in May.