ROCHESTER, Minn. — Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota-Rochester is on the cusp of becoming a bigger player in the area’s higher education scene.
SMU hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony May 24 to mark the completion of a 10,000-square-foot addition to the school’s Cascade Meadow facility in northwest Rochester. It was a coming-out party for a university intent on growth.
With the expansion nearing completion, SMU-Rochester plans to complete the transfer of graduate and bachelor completion programs to Cascade Meadow that began three years ago after Jack and Mary Ann Remick donated the building to the university.
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For the previous three decades, SMU-Rochester has rented space from Rochester Community and Technical College, where its identity had been somewhat submerged by its larger partner.
SMU-Rochester will now not only be its own landlord, but it will be poised to expand, the Post-Bulletin reported.
“That’s our hope,” said Scott Walker, SMU’s associate vice president, partnership — Rochester. “We really have high hopes for Rochester. It’s such a growing community.”
Its emergence as a stand-alone university is another sign of the decades-long shakeout of Rochester’s once balkanized higher education scene. Within the last several years, the Minnesota School of Business has closed, and Cardinal Stritch University and the College of St. Scholastica no longer offer on-the-ground programming in Rochester.
Where two decades ago there were a dozen or more public and private institutions scrambling for a niche, now there a handful — the most prominent being the public colleges, RCTC, University of Minnesota-Rochester and Winona State University-Rochester, and the two privates, SMU and Augsburg University.
“It’s kind of come down to just a handful of providers,” said Don Supalla, executive director of the Greater Rochester Advocates for Universities and Colleges, a higher education nonprofit, and one-time president of RCTC. “You got the big three publics and then you got pretty much Augsburg and Saint Mary’s.”
SMU-Rochester’s graduate and bachelor completion programs serve about 350 students a year.
SMU’s presence in Rochester has been boosted by several factors. Like WSU-Rochester, it has a main undergraduate campus that is a mere 40 miles away. Its Minneapolis-based campus has the cache of being the second-biggest provider of graduate programming in the state, after the University of Minnesota.
SMU-Rochester has also benefited from powerful benefactors in its corner, namely the Remicks.
Three years ago, Jack Remick, co-founder of the Fortune 500 Fastenal, donated what was then Cascade Meadow Environmental Science Center and its 90-acres of wetlands and prairie to SMU after the facility failed to draw much foot traffic as an environmental center.
The building alone was valued at $3 million, according to news reports. Then last year, the couple gave the school a $5 million donation, $4.4 million to build the two-story addition now nearing completion and $600,000 for program development.
In the fall of 2019, SMU-Rochester will launch a 3 + 2 Physician Assistant program, a collaborative effort between SMU and Mayo Clinic. The program will be taught in state-of-the-art rooms on the second level of the new addition. SMU officials hope to use it as template for future program development.
Under the fast-track program, SMU students would complete their undergraduate courses in three years at the Winona campus. They then would transfer to the Rochester campus to earn a two-year masters in physician assistance, taught by Mayo Clinic faculty.
Such hybrid programs are growing in popularity in the U.S, as they allow students to shave a year off their undergraduate or graduate studies. SMU’s 3 + 2 program will be the first in Minnesota, Walker said.
“We’re accelerating this for these kids,” Walker said. “It’s going to save them on dollars. It’s going to get them out in the workforce a lot quicker. As a parent and as a student, that’s a pretty attractive deal.”
The arrangement between SMU and Mayo Clinic proved to be mutually beneficial to both, Walker said. Since the faculty teaching the masters part of the program are paid by Mayo Clinic, it reduced the costs associated with the program for SMU. And with the anticipated shortage of physicians, it allows Mayo to create a new pipeline for much-needed health care workers.
“We happened to hit a home run with this first foray, because the PA degree is going to be huge,” Walker said.
There are no specific plans on the board for new programming beyond the PA program, Walker said, but SMU is exploring a gamut of possibilities.
“If we don’t have space to grow, we have space to make space to grow,” Walker said about its spacious surroundings. “If we wanted to do more, we could do more.”
Cascade Meadow’s proximity to Lourdes High School could make offering Post-Secondary Education Options a possibility. SMU is also looking at online offerings. A blending of digital and face-to-face programming at SMU-Rochester is another possibility. SMU is also “intrigue” by potential partnerships with some businesses in Rochester.
“We’re really looking at the whole gamut,” Walker said. “We’re really looking at everything and reaching out and trying to make those contacts and see what fits.”