The University of St. Thomas has exceeded an ambitious $500 million fundraising goal that will bankroll new scholarships, bolster its endowment and that already has transformed its St. Paul campus.

The state's largest private school raised $515.1 million during its "Opening Doors" campaign, officials revealed at a dinner Wednesday night. The campaign, most of it conducted during the recession, caps the 22-year presidency of the Rev. Dennis Dease, who will retire in 2013.

It is the biggest campaign for any private college in the state and, according to St. Thomas, larger than any in surrounding states.

The difficult economy affected "the nature of gifts," if not the amounts, said Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and the campaign's director. About two-thirds of the $515.1 million came from pledges yet to be paid and bequests -- increasingly common forms of giving to colleges.

"Many people weren't able to respond with pledges of cash," he said, "but many could contribute with estate gifts and gifts in kind. Those will benefit the institution greatly over time."

$142 million for aid

The campaign's single largest priority was $130 million for financial aid. In the end, it raised $142.5 million.

More than two-thirds of the resulting need and merit-based scholarships will benefit undergraduates, the rest will go to graduate students. "That will open the doors to a St. Thomas education for future generations of students from all economic and cultural backgrounds," Dease said in a statement.

The fundraising will add, over time, about $280 million to an endowment that historically has been smaller than officials would like.

From 2010 to 2011, St. Thomas' endowment swelled 26.5 percent, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, to $372 million. Despite that quick growth, St. Thomas' total was dwarfed by endowments at two smaller Minnesota private colleges, Carleton and Macalester.

About 43,500 "alumni and friends" contributed to the "Opening Doors" campaign, St. Thomas officials said Wednesday. Three gifts exceeded $50 million each. Earlier this year, the university's trustees promised to match up to $20 million in gifts, contributing to a last-minute surge.

"That pushed it over," said John Morrison, a trustee since 1996 and co-chair of the campaign.

Morrison said that "the recession hurt, there's no question about it. For those of us raising money, it had us a little bit nervous for two, three years." But it also got people thinking about affordability and the scholarships they received when they were students, he said.

Rising tuition "makes it almost impossible for a kid to go to college if he doesn't have the funds," said Morrison.

St. Thomas' total cost of attendance for an undergraduate reached $46,650 this year, which includes tuition, room, board and other expenses such as books.

Gifts to Law, Catholic Studies

In addition to financial aid, the campaign will fund a smattering of institutes and centers. The School of Law will get $8.6 million, while $3.4 million will go toward the Center for Catholic Studies. About $51.8 million will fund 19 endowed chairs and professorships.

St. Thomas kicked off the campaign's public phase in 2007 with a five-year goal, a mark it hit.

By that point, it had raised $310 million. That included $60 million from trustee Lee Anderson and his wife, Penny, underwriting three construction projects that bear their name -- including the Anderson Student Center, which opened this year.

The last construction project on the campaign's list, a $2.6 million expansion of the university's Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, is being planned.

"The campaign has been a daunting challenge," Dease wrote in a campus letter this week. But "any lingering doubts were swept away when I saw in action people like Lee and Penny Anderson ... and 40,000 donors thankful for the presence of St. Thomas in their lives."

The university's four previous campaigns had raised a combined $359.5 million.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna