Dougherty Family College

Buffy Smith

A lot of time, resources, and energy is devoted every year to reimagining how to recruit the next incoming class of college students and attract a more diverse student body. However, if colleges and universities prioritize enrollment numbers over graduation rates, we are sustaining the status quo and the inequities in our higher education system and society.

Some of the national wealth and racial inequities witnessed in prior years, and currently across the U.S., stem from a void of structural opportunities for more marginalized groups to graduate with their bachelor’s degrees.

For instance, 62% of students from high-earning families graduate with bachelor’s degrees versus 13% of students from under-resourced communities, according to 2021 data from the Pell Institute. This huge educational attainment gap is a result of a structural failure in our higher education system, and we need a structural solution.

Many universities and colleges are beginning to offer more financial resources to students to attend their institution. However, making college affordable or free is only the first step on the journey toward educational equity.

The overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students in the United States is 40%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and the dropout rate for students of color is even higher. The five-year graduation rate for Black students is only 40.5%, trailing Hispanic or Latino students who have a 5-year graduation rate of 41.5%. That compares to white students who have a 5-year rate of 62.2%.

These numbers show the inequities ahead if we don’t address the issues now, given college graduates earn 67% more than non-college graduates, according to 2021 released data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since college degrees are game changers for individuals, families, and communities, we should focus our attention on graduating more students with bachelor’s degrees within a reasonable amount of time.

That’s the goal of Dougherty Family College (DFC), a two-year college at the University of St. Thomas that serves motivated, determined, and resourceful historically underrepresented scholars. In fact, 93% of DFC scholars identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community members.

As the interim dean of Dougherty Family College, I am proud to see that our average two-year graduation rate at Dougherty is 57% compared to the 31% average Minnesota community college three-year graduation rate (MN Office of Higher Education). In addition, 71% of Dougherty Family College alumni are either enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program or have graduated with their bachelor’s degrees. That’s quite the feat for the young college, which launched in 2017 and has had three graduating classes.

Dougherty Family College is an equity mission-driven college created to specifically address the educational attainment gap and workforce gap in the state of Minnesota. It offers the same general and rigorous core courses as the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas, with lower tuition. Almost 50% of our scholars pay approximately $1,030 out of pocket for tuition and fees. This low cost is made possible because of the generosity of our partners and the internal investments of the University of St. Thomas because they believe in our model.

For one, we intentionally incorporate our scholars’ voices and interests in designing our college practices, procedures and policies.

Additionally, the success story of Dougherty Family College is based on six core structured supports that provide a pathway to graduation:

  • Rigorous Curriculum & Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
  • Mentoring Scholars through the Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education
  • Cohort Model Fosters a Strong Sense of Belonging
  • Culturally Affirming Wrap-Around Support Services
  • Professional Development and Paid Internships
  • Student Resources: Free Textbooks, Laptop, Meals, and Metro Pass

We know that higher education offers the promise of upward social mobility and an opportunity to break the cycles of intergenerational poverty. That’s why diversity, equity and inclusion is part of the DNA of DFC.

Although we have a lot of social problems we need to address in our society, we can eliminate the educational attainment gap in our lifetime. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “there is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will.” Therefore, as a state and nation, we must ask ourselves if we have the human will to provide students from under-resourced communities opportunities to thrive in college and earn college degrees.

At Dougherty Family College, we not only believe that college is possible, we believe that with structured and culturally affirming supports, graduation is inevitable.

Dr. Buffy Smith is interim dean at the Minneapolis-based Dougherty Family College. She considers it a privilege to work with motivated, determined, and resourceful historically underrepresented scholars who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree after they complete their associate degree at Dougherty Family College.


Minnesota Office of Higher Education, online graduation report: 

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) analyzed by

5-year graduation rate:

Dropout rate:

Pell Institute: Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the U.S. 2021 Report:

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

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