At the age of 102, the College of St. Scholastica is joining the Minnesota migration to Arizona.

The Duluth college announced Thursday that it is opening a branch near Phoenix — its first outside Minnesota.

Initially, St. Scholastica will offer online classes only through its Arizona satellite, as part of a partnership with two local community colleges.

But within two years, if all goes as planned, college officials say their goal is to build a $10 million to $20 million facility in a Phoenix suburb, and enroll up to 1,500 students in graduate-level health care programs.

“We’re going from practically the Canadian border to practically the Mexican border,” said spokesman Robert Aschenmacher.

School officials swear that the plan has nothing to do with a desire to escape Minnesota winters.

Instead, they see it as a chance to jump into a growing market, where the demand for college-level programs — especially in health-related fields — is booming.

“We think we see a niche opportunity in the southwest portion of the country,” said Larry Goodwin, president of St. Scholastica, a Benedictine Catholic college with about 4,200 students.

In Duluth, the college has seen its traditional undergraduate enrollment decline for several years, in part because the number of 18-year-olds has been shrinking statewide. As a result, St. Scholastica has been searching for ways to branch out, expanding its graduate health care programs and building outposts in St. Paul, Rochester and St. Cloud.

“It’s the same logic as opening another campus in Minnesota,” Goodwin said.

But the move to Arizona, which has been in the works for about 18 months, would be its biggest venture yet.

“We’re not going out tomorrow and opening up a full campus,” Goodwin said. “We’ve got it in stages. We don’t go to the next stage unless the previous one is working.”

At the earliest, the school could open a new campus in Arizona by 2016, said Don Wortham, the college’s vice president of strategic initiatives. “It’s amazing how fast things get built out there since they don’t have winter,” he said.

At this point, St. Scholastica’s presence is little more than a staffer and a desk, according to Goodwin. It has rented space at a campus known as the Communiversity, which is shared by five other colleges and universities, in Surprise, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb.

As a first step, the college plans to promote its degree program in health technology to students on that campus. Although anyone can take the classes now — because they’re all online — Goodwin said this will make it easier for community college students in Arizona to transfer into St. Scholastica’s degree program. “If you have a signed partnership, it’s like you have a spigot,” he said.

By next year, though, the college plans to add face-to-face classes at the Arizona campus, leasing space for up to 250 students enrolled in nursing and social work programs.

If that goes well, Goodman said, St. Scholastica will move to the next phase: building a facility of its own to accommodate up to 1,500 students in graduate programs in physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing and other health fields.

The building could cost $10 million to $20 million, depending on space needs, according to Wortham. The program would also create 75 to 150 faculty and staff jobs, he said, although not all would necessarily be in the Sun Belt. “We will almost certainly have people working from Duluth,” he said.