The University of Minnesota Rochester is sneaking up on a key milestone -- 1,000 students -- for the downtown campus that started from scratch 15 years ago.

UMR's student population grew by 2 percent this fall. That's on top of 11 percent growth last year. The increase means UMR has achieved what many universities and colleges nationwide have been unable to do: Grow in a time of pandemic.

"Look around Minnesota, and see if you can find anybody else that grew by 2 percent," UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell said recently.

ALSO READ: Rochester grew by 14,000 people - and powered growth in surrounding cities

Reaching the 1,000-student threshold has not only symbolic significance for the health sciences-oriented campus, it also is a key marker in the school's growth plans.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

UMR leaders have identified three scenarios when the downtown campus will need more spending and investment if it is to grow. One thousand students marks the first trigger. The phased plan's upper reaches go up to 2,500 students.

Grace Mikkelson, left, and Mariah Hennings, both University of Minnesota Rochester students, discuss a class they share Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at UMR in downtown Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Grace Mikkelson, left, and Mariah Hennings, both University of Minnesota Rochester students, discuss a class they share Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at UMR in downtown Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

UMR's plan for growing the campus was laid out in a 2014 strategic plan. But the pandemic threw a wrench into that. Now the question is: How will it grow and where? And will that growth take the university into a different direction than originally planned?

Carrell said making strategic decisions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic remains a challenge. Things remain in flux. The university system is just emerging from a hiring freeze. Plans for an all-purpose building, the centerpiece of a proposed campus in southwest Rochester, were put on pause last year. The uncertainty created by COVID forced the Rochester YMCA to pull out of the project as a partner.

UMR uses a different model than traditional schools to grow its campus. Instead of building and owning its own buildings, it has pursued partnerships with private entities and businesses to build classrooms, student housing and other infrastructure. The shared model is cheaper, but it doesn't always give the U control over its own destiny.

UMR's most pressing need, Carrell said, is student housing, followed by classroom space. The hope is to announce a direction for student housing this semester, but pandemic uncertainty continues to wreak havoc on planning.

"We have a serious exploration underway that involves a variety of options," Carrell said. "If we are to continue our enrollment growth, then we must meet this need."

Patricia Hernandez, a sophomore studies chemistry in the student lounge on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at 318 Commons in downtown Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Patricia Hernandez, a sophomore studies chemistry in the student lounge on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at 318 Commons in downtown Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

A decades-long dream of the community, the four-your campus accepted its first freshman class of 57 students in its signature health sciences bachelor program in 2009. Today its nearly 1,000-student enrollment represents undergraduate, graduate and non-degree students.

Over the years, the university has spent millions buying up properties along Broadway and in southwest Rochester in hope of creating an education district anchored by a main building featuring classrooms, student housing, recreation spaces and faculty offices. But it's not certain when or whether the building will be built.

Carrell did not say one way or the other when asked.

"The goal is to provide the facilities to support enrollment growth and opportunity for our students and to do that in a fiscally responsible way. That's really my deeply honest answer," Carrell said.

The Y's decision last year to pull out from the building project left UMR scrambling for space. Using $2.4 million from a sales tax fund dedicated to UMR, the school leased and renovated a nearby closed restaurant called The Loop. On Monday, UMR officials unveiled a new student lounge called the Nest (UMR's mascot is the raptor) where the restaurant once was.

Kendra Jude, a student at University of Minnesota Rochester, works on math homework Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at UMR in downtown Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Kendra Jude, a student at University of Minnesota Rochester, works on math homework Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at UMR in downtown Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

The second floor of 318 Commons, the school's apartment building, was also renovated into a learning space called the Center for Learning Innovation, complete with UMR faculty offices, student study spaces, and homework help center.

Carrell said delaying decisions on campus growth -- when the pandemic hopefully blows over and things become more certain -- is not an option.

"We have students we need to house," she said.