EDITORIAL: UMR follows a practical path in developing campus

·4 min read

Jul. 16—The experiment continues at the University of Minnesota Rochester.

Really, no other word better sums up what has taken place at Minnesota's youngest university since its inception in 2006. UMR was and continues to be an experiment in higher education, a proving ground for instructional theories and methods that require a uniquely motivated student population, a specialized faculty and the proximity of seemingly endless opportunities for hands-on learning in the medical and scientific fields.

Has the experiment succeeded?

The results aren't in yet, but this year we've seen strong signals that Minnesota's university system leaders like what is happening in downtown Rochester.

One such signal came in early June, when the University of Minnesota Regents unanimously approved a deal to lease the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Rochester for student housing. The plan will convert 200 hotel rooms into student housing for up to 400 students, and it also will include a full-service dining facility and recreational space. The 12-year lease comes at a annual cost of $3.06 million, with built-in increases of 1.75% each year.

To say the least, the timing of this decision is interesting.

Nationwide, public and private four-year colleges and universities are struggling to (if we can borrow a phrase from the hotel industry) put "heads in beds." Total postsecondary enrollment in spring 2022 was down 4.1% compared to 2021. Undergraduate enrollment dropped 9.4% in the past two years, which translates to 1.4 million fewer students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities.

Theories abound regarding the causes of this decline, but a red-hot job market and the soaring cost of college certainly have led many 18-year-olds and their tuition-paying parents to question the value of a bachelor's degree. Why enter the job market at 22 or 23 with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt when you can train or apprentice for a year or two (often getting paid to learn) and start a career at age 20?

A big investment in student housing is proof that Minnesota believes UMR can buck that trend.

We share that belief, in part because of UMR's hybrid nature. Yes, it's a four-year university, but it's also essentially a high-end trade school — and we mean that in an entirely positive way. UMR's niche is health care and health research, and it produces employment-ready graduates in fields that are experiencing exponential growth.

While the COVID-19 pandemic clearly put a damper on college enrollment (and on the college experience for students already enrolled), it also exposed and exasperated big shortfalls in the medical workforce. In May, the American Hospital Association projected a deficit of up to 450,000 registered nurses by 2025, as well as a shortage of 3.2 million medical assistants, home health aides and nursing assistants. The nation could be short more than 100,000 doctors within a decade, and pharmacy technicians today can find an open job almost anywhere they might look.

UMR can prepare students for these and other careers in health care, but is the price too high? Will students look for less-expensive options?

Price definitely is a concern — but UMR is part of an experiment to address that problem, too.

This fall, about two dozen first-year students will be part of the school's first "Next Gen Med" program. They will study the business of health care, taking classes in seven-week increments, including summers. They will earn the same number of credits as students in UMR's regular four-year programs, but they will complete their degrees in three years — and will save as much as $26,000.

Yes, we know that lots of first-year college students arrive on campus with a transcript full of high school AP courses and concurrent enrollment credits that allow them to earn a college degree in three years or less, but UMR now offers something different. Students can show up with no college credits and still plan to be job-ready, degree in hand, in just three years.

This kind of innovation and adaptability is why we remain so bullish on UMR's future in downtown Rochester. While skeptics can still point to the lack of a defined, "traditional" campus and a long-promised but yet-to-be-built academic building, we like the fact that UMR didn't rush into expensive construction projects that ultimately might not have lined up with the needs of students and their future employers in our still-evolving post-pandemic world.

We're all familiar with the phrase "measure twice, cut once." Well, UMR has been measuring and adapting to students' needs for more than a decade, and as long as those needs keep changing, it's not a bad idea to keep the saw (and the crane, and the bulldozer) on the sidelines — especially if existing downtown spaces can be repurposed at a fraction of the cost.