Leef highlights a university that bucks popular trends

George Leef’s latest column for Forbes profiles one university that seems to buck trends that have contributed to the overselling of American higher education.

[J]ust because much of our higher education system is now a poor value for students who really want to study, we shouldn’t think that worthwhile schools have disappeared. In fact, just a few years ago, a new, very small university was created — the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) – that does just what a college is supposed to do.

While online education is getting most of the attention these days when the subject of change in higher education comes up, UMR shows that the old-fashioned professor-facing-students-in-a-classroom model can be reworked so that it gives serious students a true education at reasonable cost. …

… Business and civic leaders kept angling for a full University of Minnesota campus and in 2006 that wish was granted when the state designated University of Minnesota—Rochester as a “full and official coordinate campus.”

At that point, however, there was no campus. Nor was there any plan for what to do with this new entity. Minnesota might have set up UMR like almost every other state university campus, with lots of departments, degrees, dormitories, sports teams, and so forth. Had that happened, the country would have had one more cookie-cutter university, churning out graduates who have had a good time but learned little during their college years—and doing so at high cost.

Fortunately, that did not happen. For one thing, Minnesota didn’t have the money for a “real” university. More importantly, the man chosen to be the chancellor of the new institution, Stephen Lehmkuhle, insisted on thinking outside the standard higher education box. Lehmkuhle is a psychologist who is interested in how people learn. He had been the top academic administrator at the University of Missouri and saw UMR as a clean slate for developing a college that would maximize student learning.

Furthermore, the small budget had had to work with made him think like an entrepreneur: How can I get the most benefit from my very limited resources?

Lehmkuhle decided that UMR should focus on just one thing, namely training people for careers in medicine and related fields, a perfect fit for the Mayo Clinic’s headquarters. UMR only offers a B.S. in Health Sciences. The curriculum includes a liberal arts component in the first two years, alongside rigorous grounding in the STEM disciplines. In their last two years, students are immersed in studies that prepare them for their careers, including a capstone senior project.

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