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Enrollment drop forces U-Rochester to rethink strategy

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Students took a first-day selfie.
University of Minnesota - Rochester student Laura Magee took a selfie with Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle and other students during a welcome back party on the first day of classes last week.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

She called them the "Wonderful 100." But there's no doubt University of Minnesota-Rochester Vice Chancellor Lori Carrell would have loved to call her incoming freshman class the "Wonderful 200."

"The Wonderful 100 come with perseverance and passion and some amazing stories," Carrell told a recent gathering to welcome the UMR freshmen.

They're also coming with fewer peers. The 100-member freshman class is down 20 percent from last year, and about 33 percent from two years ago.

That's led U-Rochester officials to change their recruitment strategy as the academic year begins. Recruiters this year will also focus on connecting with students of color and first-generation students. They'll also target recruitment in select countries.

The school hopes to double the size of next year's freshman class, but that may be a challenge. The school lacks many of the traditional trappings of college life that draw people in their teens and early 20s.

The 9-year-old school is located on the top floor of a downtown shopping mall just blocks from Mayo Clinic. It offers just two majors, both in health-related fields.

Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle
University of Minnesota - Rochester Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle watched a dance performance during a welcome back party for students on the first day of classes last week.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

After graduating three U-Rochester classes, officials now have a better sense of the type of students interested in the campus, said Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle. They're typically students with personal connections to health care or illness.

"They're not coming here to watch a bunch of sports teams. We don't have sports teams. We don't have climbing walls, those kinds of things," he said. "What they're doing here, is they become part of a group of other students who share their passion and they support each other. And they work very hard. It's very rigorous."

Until now, Lehmkuhle says the campus has recruited students in a very traditional way, by focusing on those who live within 150 miles from Rochester. This year, he says, the college will extend that region by cultivating relationships with high schools around the country that focus on health care education.

"If there's a high school in Baltimore that focuses on health sciences, we have a connection and we can send somebody there to meet students and invite them to come, yes we will do that," he said.

The school has some distinct advantages. Teachers often pair up with Mayo Clinic researchers and doctors to take the classroom into the clinic's labs. Many students end up volunteering or shadowing doctors at Mayo.

Students Sami Linscheid and Mikayla Schmidt
First-year students Sami Linscheid and Mikayla Schmidt chat in the commons area of the University of Minnesota - Rochester on the first day of classes.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

The school's health sciences focus and its proximity to Mayo were the main reasons freshman Mikalay Schmidt said she chose the school over others.

"I was very excited that I could be surrounded by other people that have the same interests and take classes my first year that are going to help me in my career rather than just gen-eds, said Schmidt, from from Kaukauna, Wis.

For others like 18-year-old Sami Linscheid of Portage, Wis., the school's small class sizes was a selling point. The average U-Rochester class has 23 students.

"I originally didn't want to come here," Linscheid said. "But ... I really like the small class size, and you get to know your chancellor and all the professors. What other school do the chancellors talk to you?"