New space on the other side of town would consolidate some of the university's many programs scattered across the metro area..
Metropolitan State, once known as the "university without walls," is looking to put up a few in the western suburbs.
Leaders of the St. Paul-based school are planning a campus on the other side of town. That's where the population is growing, especially among people of color -- Metro State's specialty. Leaders don't know whether they will lease, buy or build. But the new space will gather some of the university's many programs now scattered across the metro area.
"It will be the biggest thing we've done since this campus," said Sue Hammersmith, the university's president, referring to its St. Paul buildings perched above Interstate 94.
The plan is part of a broader effort by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to offer more bachelor's and graduate degrees in the Twin Cities and its suburbs, where the system has plenty of two-year colleges but just one university. For several years, the system's universities have been bringing four-year programs to its two-year colleges. Metro State already offers courses at all 10 of MnSCU's two-year colleges in the metro area.
But "the college campuses are just bursting," said Laura King, MnSCU's chief financial officer. For example, enrollment at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where Metro State has a big presence, jumped by about 4,000 students -- or 37 percent -- from 2006 to 2010.
Starting a university from scratch is not an option, planning documents show. "It seemed to us that we had the basic infrastructure," King said. "We just had to scale it up."
A west campus could respond to population growth and workforce needs. A 2009 report noted that "the system will be expected by state leaders to increase participation in post-secondary education."
Metro State's focus on helping working adults complete their degrees fits well with that goal, leaders said. Plus, a west facility could help Metro State compete with for-profit schools that target the same student body.
"They will pay more for convenience," Hammersmith said. "And right now, we're not serving the residents of the western half quite as well as we'd like to."
Leasing a large, west-metro site could happen as soon as 2012, while buying or building could trigger a lengthier approval process.
For two decades before its main campus towered over the freeway just east of downtown St. Paul, Metro State was Minnesota's "university without walls." Its dozens of locations -- in churches, skyways and strip malls -- made it easy for working adults to get to class.
"We could handle that when we had 1,500 students," Hammersmith said. "We are now more than 10,000 students."
The New Main building was opened in 1994, gathering administration and some programs. But even now, the university has four primary sites, with 32 additional teaching locations. Those locations include the leased Midway Center, where 35 percent of Metro State's credit hours are held.
Leased facilities can be used only at certain hours, in certain ways, so they're less efficient than the buildings Metro State owns, Hammersmith said.
"That is a real problem for Metropolitan State," King said. "It certainly cuts down on their efficiency if they have to juggle their programming schedule to fit the space."
Students often attend a night class at one site, drive to another site the next night, then maybe take a class online.
A new west-metro campus should not become just "another campus we'll have to drive to," said Angi Daus, 27, a graduate student in the College of Management. She wants to make sure that Metro State leaders involve students in planning for the campus, as it will affect the university's demographics and services.
A 17-year-old looking for the "college experience" probably wouldn't attend Metro State. Metro State has no residence halls, no athletics, no workout facilities. The vast majority of its students are transfer students, many of whom who start with a fistful of transcripts from other schools. Two-thirds work full time. The average age is 32.
'What we do best'
A west campus will not change that mission, Hammersmith said. "What we want to do is build on what we do best," she said, "not be all things to all people."
Hammersmith promises that the campus would be complementary to -- and not competitive with -- MnSCU's two-year schools in the area. She said she is "open to" MnSCU's other universities providing programs that Metro State doesn't offer at the new site.
But such decisions will come later. First, the university must get system approvals and perhaps, depending on the plan, one from the Legislature.
State law dictates that "the board shall not establish off-campus centers or other permanent sites to provide academic programs, courses, or student services without authorizing legislation."
But then, referencing Metro State's history as a university "without walls," it says: "For the purposes of this subdivision, the campus of Metropolitan State University is the seven-county metropolitan area."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168