To support underserved students, Loyola and other four-year universities offer two-year associate degrees

Editor’s note: This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

CHICAGO — Jazmin Mejia went straight from high school to what she thought was the perfect fit at Loyola University, a 30-minute drive from the Chicago neighborhood where she grew up.

But Mejia was quickly overwhelmed on the North Side campus of nearly 17,000 students.

“The classes were too big,” said Mejia, 18. “I was struggling to ask for help.”

A year later, she says college has become much more manageable.

Mejia left Loyola’s main campus in favor of the university’s Arrupe College, a two-year program in downtown Chicago that offers associate degrees. Taking smaller classes with instructors who interact more with students has been a game-changer, she said.

“The professors try to communicate with you and try to understand your situation,” Mejia said over breakfast at one of the communal tables in the Arrupe cafeteria.

Two-year associate degrees have long been offered almost exclusively at community colleges, but the model pioneered at Loyola is picking up steam at private, nonprofit four-year universities around the country. Many of these are Jesuit schools like Loyola, which say that lower-cost two-year associate degree programs particularly help students who need the most support.

A student uses the art fellows space at Arrupe college to review for an upcoming assessment. Camilla Forte/ The Hechinger Report

“It’s a reach-in culture,” said the Rev. Thomas Neitzke, Arrupe’s dean. “It’s that total wraparound, both in the classroom and outside the classroom.”

The expansion of the Arrupe model is largely being championed by Steve Katsouros, who was the founding dean of Arrupe nine years ago and is now president and CEO of the Come To Believe Network, a nonprofit focused solely on bringing two-year degrees to four-year schools. The network raises money to provide grants to universities to start associate degree programs.

In addition to Loyola, schools that have either recently opened or plan to open two-year colleges include the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, the University of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City, Butler University in Indiana and Boston College.

A handful of other schools, such as the University of the Pacific in California, are considering programs. And Homeboy Industries, a gang rehabilitation nonprofit, is exploring partnering with Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles to create an associate degree program.

Even considering the concept can help a college learn more about the needs of its broader student body, Katsouros said. “We try to identify the factors that prevent students from being successful,” Katsouros said, noting that most of the programs also offer some combination of free meals, laptops and housing.

The concept also suggests a way to diversify and expand enrollment. Programs in the Come To Believe Network must commit to accepting lower-income students and keeping their loan debt to a minimum. At Arrupe, for instance, the advertised tuition is a little over $13,000 a year, but scholarships and work-study programs mean most students pay about $2,000, Neitzke said. The strategy, he explained, is partly to attract students who can’t afford private universities and might not want to attend cheaper public community colleges that don’t offer as much personal attention.

The hope is that most graduates of the two-year programs will go on to finish bachelor’s degrees at universities. Data is sparse so far, but even modest success toward that goal would be a huge improvement over the national numbers.

While 80% of community college students say they plan to earn bachelor’s degrees, only 16% manage to do so within six years, according to the Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center, or CCRC, at Teachers College, Columbia University. The numbers are even worse for low-income (11%), Black (9%) and Hispanic (13%) students. (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

Only a relative handful of students attend these new two-year programs compared to millions at traditional community colleges, but the differences are stark. At Loyola’s Arrupe College, for instance, 50% of students graduate, and 70% of those graduates continue to bachelor’s degree programs, according to figures provided by the college.

More universities should be offering associate degrees, said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the CCRC.

“These are institutions that could use their prestige and dedication to high-quality teaching to really onboard students” who would otherwise not attend college, Jenkins said. “This is building a bridge into the college, using the college’s strength.”

Most of the new programs guarantee graduates admission to the parent campus, although not all students decide to accept the opportunity.

At Butler University, which will open its two-year Founder’s College to 100 students next year, students who graduate from Founder’s with sufficient grades will automatically be eligible to finish their bachelor’s degrees at the university. Students will have no debt after the first two years, said Brooke Barnett, Butler’s provost, and those who go on to Butler will pay no more than $10,000 total for the full four years. Founder’s College is being funded entirely by foundations and donors, she said, and will fulfill the university’s longtime goal of offering low-cost degrees to underrepresented students.

“We want to give students the opportunity to flourish and shine and show the talents they can bring,” Barnett said. “They have not always been given those opportunities.”

Some universities, including Butler, are using the associate degree programs as an opportunity to introduce students to the main campus without overwhelming them with huge classes. Others, such as Loyola and Boston College, are keeping associate students separate to ease them into college life.

Boston College’s new Messina College will open to 100 students this summer on property it acquired from a college that closed, about a mile from the main campus. Messina College leaders hope the initial isolation will help avoid the culture shock of a large campus and keep students from dropping out.

“There’s a great advantage in having our students start off in that smaller setting,” said Erick Berrelleza, Messina’s founding dean.

While the concept of universities offering associate degrees is relatively new, some community colleges in 24 states have introduced bachelor’s degrees in a handful of disciplines in the past decade — an innovation universities haven’t always welcomed.

Before Idaho approved a plan in March for a community college to offer bachelor’s degrees, for instance, Boise State University argued against the proposal, essentially saying it would step on the university’s toes.

“Indeed, it could hurt effective and efficient postsecondary education in Idaho,” the university wrote to the state Board of Education, “cannibalizing limited resources available to postsecondary education and duplicating degree offerings in the same region.”

Community colleges have not yet voiced concerns about universities offering associate degrees, and the CCRC’s Jenkins said there’s little reason for community colleges to worry about these relatively small two-year programs. Still, he said, it will be important for universities to collaborate with community colleges.

“Where it’s been done well, there’s been negotiation,” he said. “I would hope this would encourage community colleges to partner with four-year institutions.”

Several four-year schools said they had not talked formally with community colleges before starting associate programs. That includes the University of Mount Saint Vincent, which will open its new two-year Seton College this summer on its campus in the Bronx.

A spokesman for Bronx Community College declined to answer questions about the Mount Saint Vincent program, while the borough’s other community college, Hostos, did not respond to interview requests.

In Minnesota, where University of St. Thomas opened its associate degree program in 2017, there has been no friction between the university and St. Paul College, the closest community college. St. Paul College leaders have been supportive of the initiative, said Austin Calhoun, a St. Paul spokesperson.

“That’s 200 more students in the Twin Cities per year getting access to higher education,” she said. Still, she added, “St. Thomas is definitely the outlier. If the University of Minnesota got in the game, that would be a different scale.”

Jonathan Larbi, a sophomore at Arrupe College, plans to transfer to Loyola University's four-year campus. Camilla Forte/ The Hechinger Report

Back at Arrupe College, second-year student Jonathan Larbi was splitting his time between school and a campus job in the admissions office while preparing to continue his education at Loyola next year. Larbi, who hopes to go to medical school and become a pediatrician, grew up in Chicago and Ghana and had planned to go to Loyola straight out of high school, “but it wasn’t the smartest financial decision.”

Starting at Arrupe has worked well, he said, since he feels like a Loyola student but doesn’t have to pay the university’s $50,000-plus tuition.

“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” he said. “Their resources are our resources.”

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