Our View: UMR will turn around enrollment numbers
A few years ago, an interviewer asked Stephen Lehmkuhle, "How's your football team doing?"
Without missing a beat, Lehmkuhle, the chancellor for the University of Minnesota-Rochester answered, "We're undefeated."
The audience chuckled at Lehmkuhle's quick wit. The interviewer was a performer for the Theater of Public Policy, a Twin Cities-based comedy troupe that invited Lehmkuhle and then-Chamber of Commerce President John Wade to join an irreverent discussion of issues called "The University of Minnesota in a Shopping Center — You've Got to be Kidding!" at Mayo Civic Theatre.
UMR, which was founded in 2006, is a school unlike any other. There are no athletic teams. Students have a choice of just two majors focused on health careers, and all incoming freshmen are required to take organic chemistry during their first semester. The campus is in what used to be the Galleria Centerpiece retail mall, with the university several years away from its planned $60 million, 120,000-square-foot academic building that will be the centerpiece of a 10-acre campus at the southern end of downtown Rochester.
All of those factors present recruiting challenges, which is evident this fall as UMR's incoming freshmen class has declined for the second year in a row after peaking at 197 in 2013. The university won't have its official enrollment numbers until 10 days into the semester, but school officials expect to be well below last year's freshmen class of 146.
Despite the declining numbers, we're optimistic UMR will reverse the trend and eventually surpass the annual goal of 200 incoming freshmen and a total enrollment exceeding 1,200 students.
The university recently hired John Hatchell as the director of marketing. Hatchell will oversee a team to create a strategy to brand UMR as a premier undergraduate university for health care.
UMR already is focusing on high schools with strong health-care programming and co-curricular activities. Recruiters also are targeting people who have gone through a personal illness because they are more likely to develop a passion for health care.
But even before Hatchell was hired, Lehmkuhle was thinking about a broader marketing strategy.
"We've been recruiting regionally, but we're going to begin to move in a more national presence," Lehmkuhle said in a meeting with the Post-Bulletin's Editorial Board in March.
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, who was touring the Rochester campus, agreed with Lehmkuhle, adding that "there are markets we haven't explored as aggressively as we should."
Kaler speculated about an untapped segment of non-traditional students for UMR.
"I think of returning veterans who say, 'I want to go into the health field. I don't want to be a doctor, but I want to be in the health sciences,'" Kaler said. "Here's an attractive way to do it, and Rochester is an attractive city for somebody with a family who's coming back to school."
UMR's proximity to Mayo Clinic as it unfolds the Destination Medical Center expansion is serendipitous for a school that offers a bachelor's degree in health sciences, which puts students on track for graduate school, and a bachelor's degree in health professions, with emphases such as radiography, echocardiography, sonography, respiratory care and nuclear medicine.
Another marketing tool will be the testimonials of UMR's students. The first graduating class was just in 2013, so there are little more than 200 alumni to promote their alma mater.
As they establish themselves in their careers, the growing number of UMR graduates can tell others about the average class size of 23, the student-to-faculty ratio of 1 to 11 and the four-year graduation rate of 96 percent.
Those are numbers that can't be beat.