REGIONAL - The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees last week approved plans to merge five community and technical colleges in Northeastern Minnesota. The action paves the way …
REGIONAL - The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees last week approved plans to merge five community and technical colleges in Northeastern Minnesota. The action paves the way for the Northeast Higher Education District to proceed with comprehensive planning to merge the accreditations of the five schools that make up NHED.
After a two-year planning period the board will vote again on whether to go through with it. The new college organization, if approved, would be in operation by fall of 2022. The current plan would keep all six of the district’s college campuses, including Vermilion, Mesabi Range in both Virginia and Eveleth, Hibbing, Itasca, and Rainy River, open for students and classes.
The proposed restructuring is being driven by persistent enrollment declines that have been experienced throughout the Minnesota State higher education system.
“Restructuring our five colleges into one accredited institution with six campuses will have many long-lasting benefits for our region,” said Michael Raich, interim president of NHED, in a press release. “We will create seamless learning experiences for students across the region, expand academic programming regionally, strengthen regional employer, university, and K-12 partnerships, and improve operational efficiencies. Operating our six campuses under a single accreditation will allow us to leverage the capacity and flexibility of a larger, cohesive college while still maintaining the important individual campus identities that our communities have grown to trust.”
Northeast Higher Education District schools have cooperated since 1999, sharing a president and some other services. Despite those two decades of cooperation, the colleges compete for students and still operate independently in many areas. They’ve had their own budgets, academic programs, enrollment management systems, accreditation and sports programs.
The five colleges on six campuses have the equivalent of about 2,900 full-time students combined, having lost a third of their tuition-paying enrollment over the past eight years. An increase in the number of high school students taking advantage of post-secondary option has boosted the number of concurrent students, but nowhere near enough to stem the enrollment slide.
The decline in enrollment at NHED schools is outpacing the statewide trend, and that’s a demographic problem that the current restructuring is unlikely to solve. While some parts of Minnesota are experiencing population growth, the northeastern Minnesota counties served by NHED are experiencing either stable or declining populations. That trend is being fueled by the rapid aging of the existing population combined with minimal in-migration. It’s a demographic pattern that’s being experienced to varying degrees in many rural parts of Minnesota and the U.S. as a whole.
In the case of NHED, the enrollment declines are putting some of the schools at a critical point. Rainy River Community College, in International Falls, for example, currently has fewer than 100 students enrolled. Raich said the border country college has done a lot to structure itself for such a limited enrollment.
While VCC enrollment has declined, at just about 12 percent, it’s been a slower slide than most other NHED schools. “While we have fared quite a bit better than some of the other schools, sustained declines in enrollment are never good,” said VCC Provost Shawn Bina. “VCC has typically been more of a destination college, and we attract students from all over the Minnesota and dozens of other states,” he said. “But a drop from 643 students to 563 students has definitely been felt here.”
Bina said this week that the plan emerged last fall after four years of joint strategic planning. “We have been moving in that direction for a number of years with our shared business office, shared financial aid services ,and in other areas. These opportunities help all of us, and the typical student won’t see anything different here at VCC or the other schools,” he said.
The merged schools will get a new name that’s yet to be determined. Raich said each school would get to leverage the strengths of the larger unit while maintaining their “strong community identities.”
Each campus will be allowed to maintain its own identity, especially surrounding unique programs. For instance, campuses may be allowed to retain independent athletic programs so long as it remains financially viable.
At VCC, Bina envisions minimal changes. “We are the Boundary Waters school and my role is to make sure that stays the same,” he said. “I have been here 26 years and our ethos has always been in natural resources, and we will keep that identity. We don’t want to change something that is working.”
The Minnesota State system, which includes 30 public colleges and seven universities, is in the ninth consecutive year of enrollment declines, which largely have been blamed on a strong economy. “People are making that choice to go to work rather than come to school,” Raich said.
According to state data released last week, just 66 percent of Minnesota’s 2018 high school graduating class enrolled in college the following fall— a drop from 70 percent four years ago.