Enrollment decline poses new challenge to state colleges

Trying to read trends is difficult. You have to figure out what’s part of a normal cycle and what might be indicative of change. And then, if it is real change, you have to determine what’s causing the change. Is it inevitable or malleable? Are you causing it or is it something else?

That’s the challenge in climate science. That’s the challenge in economics. And that’s the challenge — we now see — in higher education.

Across Minnesota, state colleges report significant enrollment declines over the past year. This includes several colleges in Northern Minnesota, including Hibbing Community College.

NOTE: Here is where I disclose that I am a full time faculty member at HCC, but that what I write here at MinnesotaBrown is my opinion and does not represent the official position of my employer.

Hibbing is one of 20 colleges across the state currently operating in deficit. That’s a solid majority of all state schools. Here in Northern Minnesota Mesabi Range College also made the list. Couple with that enrollment declines at Itasca, Vermilion and Rainy River colleges last year and you see that the entire region has the same problem.

So, part of this is cyclical. The economy is relatively strong right now. Specifically, skilled workers are working and few need retraining for new jobs. There have been few major layoffs around the state or here in northern Minnesota. It’s well understood that “good times” mean lean times at the college, and that “bad times” at the mines and mills mean plenty of work for us. That’s just how it works.

But there’s more than the usual cycle at play. These enrollment declines have been bigger than usual, and options for dealing with them have been fewer.

For two decades, state leaders — especially conservatives — have pushed to shift funding for state colleges away from being mostly allocation to instead rely more on tuition. This has made enrollment an even bigger variable in a college’s bottom line. And it’s been pure hell for rural colleges because our population is largely fixed and aging.

Older demographics mean fewer college students, especially when every trained worker who can work is working. It also means lower enrollment at local high schools, which produce what we at the college would call “next year’s freshman class.”

Growing economic inequality also means that the vast number of local people working paycheck to paycheck to pay rent and raise kids can’t see how to afford college education, or if it’s even worth it. After all, going to school without the right preparation or choosing the wrong program or path can become a costly mistake for many among the working poor.

I’ve seen all of this play out at my college and in my classrooms. And I’ve seen it manifest in our college budget, which continues to be trimmed to get out of the red. At this point, however, cuts mean losing program, and losing programs means losing students. Truly innovative changes must happen or else campuses will close.

Minnesota’s state colleges are currently trapped in a tough dynamic. What we really need is for community and technical colleges to reach the large number of people who can’t afford college or who currently lack the basic skills to succeed in jobs or school. But that would require investment and vision currently lacking in state government.

One thing is certain. The good economy won’t last forever. The skilled workers now working will soon have to contend with new forms of automation and technological systems. We’d better hope state colleges are in good shape when that happens. Past generations have long relied on community and technical colleges to build their future prosperity. We owe no less to the next generation.



  1. I think you are right on the main causes of this trend.

    The recovery of the labor market has stopped the trend of young people — and some a bit older — deferring entering the workforce while pursuing additional education. Workforce participation, like unemployment and economic growth, has shown a steady increase since late 2011, advancing along the same smooth slope since then as the economy recovered from the recession. Following that steady line, workforce participation has now crossed into the above 60% zone, gaining a bit over 1% over the interval. I think there has probably been an even greater increase among younger workers, masked by the retirement of baby boomers and the withdrawal of many women from the market as they reach ages when their family retirement planning allows them to stop work that they do not find rewarding.

    But the second cause may be even more important. Over the last two decades, GOP legislatures and the Pawlenty administration have flipped the formula for payment for public higher ed in Minnesota, going from a policy of the state paying about 2/3’s of the costs to a formula of the student paying 2/3’s, heading even higher after the last legislative session. Coupled with natural rises in cost of education related to inflation adjustments to salaries of teachers and staff and greater than inflation rises in the costs of equipment due to higher tech, this has priced higher ed out of the affordable range for many working class kids whose parents do not have the resources to pay the costs of their education.

    The two together have created pressure to defer education, at least temporarily, while working in the improved economy. Many of these kids have the plan that they will return to school or enter school at some future date, but the realities of life — marriage, family, financial burdens of establishing life — will mean that many of them will stay permanently as high school grads unless an economic downturn or rising job automation forces them out, and they perhaps with benefit from government programs financing school for displaced workers.

    While this is an individual crisis for many young Minnesotans and for those who work in higher ed, this is also potentially damaging for the future of our state economy. Minnesota generally has a better educated work force than many states, especially Midwestern, Western, and Southern states, and has ridden that, along with an historic strong financial commitment to public financing of research and a state commitment to building and maintaining infrastructure, to superior economic performance. Employment rates, household incomes, take home pay after taxes and benefits, and business climate have consistently outperformed all states except for the three West Coast states and some of the Northeastern seaboard states. Minnesotans are just better off, and businesses in Minnesota do better, than all of our neighboring states, the only exception being North Dakota for a few years during the height of the energy boom.

    The decision of conservative politicians to reverse the policies associated with this historic performance strikes me as highly risky. It will be easy to squander the inheritance of the state if we continue to reduce our support of K-12 and higher ed, collapse our support of research, and refuse to support needed infrastructure spending in order to offer tax cuts to high income individuals and out of state corporations, Depleting our rainy day reserve risks cycling back into the economic disaster of the Pawlenty era, when reductions in K-12 school support and Local Government Aid resulted in massive increases in property and local sales taxes that still were not enough to stop funding disasters for schools and local government.

    Minnesota has benefitted from the wisdom of its past governments of both parties throughout the second half of the 20th century in supporting programs that are the foundation for prosperity. Reversing that policy is doing damage that our children will pay for, threatening to reduce us to the status of states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Kansas instead of following states like Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut on continuing upward path.

  2. According to the Minnesota State board of trustees, most of Minnesota’s 37 institutions are getting better at managing the loss in students. They’re setting budgets with more realistic enrollment targets, cutting staff and reining in course offerings. Hibbing needs to do the same. It’s one of the poorest managed colleges in the Minnesota system. The issues facing all institutions in Minnesota might be similar, however, most are addressing those issues.

    Two years ago, 19 of 37 schools were under extra scrutiny by the system office for failing financial stress tests. This year, that number is nine (not 20 as stated by Aaron). The nine include four universities — Metropolitan State, St. Cloud State, Southwest Minnesota State and Winona State; and five colleges — Mesabi Range, Riverland, Hibbing, Pine and MSC Southeast.

    Three of those schools — Metro State, Winona State and Hibbing — triggered both of the system’s low-cash flags for letting their fund balances drop below 20 percent of annual revenues and spending at least 10 percent of the fund balance over three years. Hibbing simply needs to get it’s act together.

    These three should benchmark what the other 34 are doing and follow suit. Maybe the Hibbing board needs to be replaced.

    • We don’t have a “board” Bob. We are managed by the state using a funding formula of their choosing. We’ve made a lot of cuts over the past 10 years. There is nothing “fat” left in the budget. I have a lot of confidence in our president and local administration. I would suggest, oh so kindly, that you consider that these are public colleges now mostly dependent on enrollment revenue. And when enrollment drops quickly for reasons out of our control (SEE ABOVE) you have what I term an enrollment crisis (SEE ABOVE). I suppose we could just close all the colleges, but considering that we train all the miners and nurses in Northern Minnesota for the benefit of private industry I’m betting that’s not what you really mean.

      Finally, I would like to make a personal comment that I don’t appreciate the cheap shot, especially when it’s so misinformed. I love what I do. It’s vitally important work for our community and economy and it’s NONPARTISAN.

      • Ok Aaron…Hibbing CC might not have a “board” per se, but Bill Maki and his staff need to be held accountable for something. He is the so-called “chief executive officer” of Hibbing Community College. He’s responsible for leading the college faculty, staff, and students in developing and implementing the college mission, consistent with the State board mission and goals. And fiscally, he’s failing at his job.

        No cheap shot intended Aaron, simply pointing out facts. I believe the junior college system in Minnesota has and continues to serve Minnesotans well. But, it’s needs to be well managed. The world always has and will continue to change. If Bill and his staff can’t adapt to ever-changing conditions, fire him. We can’t afford to let our college system fail.

        • Nice cover, Bob. “Oops I’m just going to pretend I didn’t step in shit just now.”

          You’re entitled to your opinions. I’d argue Bill has done a great job getting schools out of budget deficit while the state continues to push an anti-rural funding formula. Hibbing’s in the barrel this year, but we had good years while some of the others were in statutory deficit previously. In fact, one of the reasons we boomeranged was our spending on special training for dislocated miners now back at work. You can review the books. They’re public anyhow. The reason for the budget shortfall is a dependence on enrollment funding when enrollment has dropped suddenly and uncontrollably. But, it’s clear you’re just stirring up trouble here because I used words that liberals like and you just can’t help yourself. If you’d like I’d be happy to use Google to make up insults for your work at 3M. That would be a productive use of our time.

  3. Regarding K-12, Minnesota spends way more than the national average per student. More money isn’t the answer to improving Minnesota’s K-12 global test scores. Mom and Dad staying together, raising their kids together, increasing their kids education expectations is the answer. Without that, forget it.

    • The “national average” is not really a sensible measure of adequacy of K-12 spending, since it factors in many Southern and other states that spend low amounts of money and get terrible results. Historically in Minnesota we have not been satisfied with terrible results, although making that adjustment could certainly same money, if that is your goal.

      I agree that choosing your parents wisely is probably the biggest key to success in school. In fact, the median income for a community is an excellent surrogate for measures of school achievement. The measured percentile for school performance and the percentile for income is rarely more than five percentage points apart.

      The question in Minnesota is whether we are happy with that. Have we decided as a state that we will accept the notion that a child whose parents are divorced or who is being raised in a single parent family for other reasons, a child whose parents are poor, a child whose parents themselves are poorly educated, a child whose parents must work multiple low paying jobs to support their family, should be satisfied to be poorly educated and become part of another generation of hereditary poverty?

      Perhaps we do. There are some people who argue that the education system is supposed to separate the winners from the losers, that if everyone did well in school we would just end up with a large number of very well educated overqualified workers. Perhaps the job of education is to make sure that we have not just enough doctors and engineers but also enough minimum wage workers.

      However, from the point of view of the economic success of our state or region, there is no doubt that better results in education lead to better economic results. That has been Minnesota’s secret ingredient in achieving an economy that outshines most other states and all of our neighbors.

      Back to your initial point, and speaking of correlations, it turns out that “national averages” aside, ALL of the top performing states economically — West Coast and Northeastern states plus Minnesota — are states that have chosen to make a significantly above average commitment to education. The only exceptions to that rule have been oil states, and they are only the exception during energy booms. During energy busts, they fall back, and have per capita income, take home pay, household incomes, and so on that match the states that share their values in terms of education.

  4. David Gray says

    You can’t understand what is happening on this issue without addressing CIS, in which high school students get college credits, more often than not from teachers with nothing more than an undergraduate degree in their given field.

    • College in the schools is an issue. We’ve been very cautious and selective in using it at HCC. New requirements insist that the HS teachers be credentialled in field now, so that is an improvement. A lot of colleges made a business out of pumping up CIS but it wasn’t a good thing for our brand. PSEO is a much more rigorous program and gives students the full experience.

  5. Tom Fauchald says

    Great article Aaron. The other issue is of course the decline in the high school age population across all of Northern Minnesota. Another issue is the growth of Lake Supior CC in Duluth, I’m dating myself but 30 years Ago it was sub campus of HCC with little enrollment with many Duluth kids attending HCC if they wanted to attend a CC instead of UMD. Keep up your great work.

    • Definitely – especially when you have Lake Superior now offering some of the same programs as HCC.
      Also over the past 18-19 years since NHED was formed, HCC has had to make sacrifices. Sure it has helped keep RRCC and VCC alive, but seems like it has had negative value to the other three colleges – particularly HCC.

  6. RealityCheck says

    HCC is an independently accredited college under the umbrella of the Northeast Higher Education District (a.k.a. NHED). The Minnesota State system does not give a dime to HCC. The funds go to NHED and the District determines how it will be allocated based largely (if not entirely) on the same formula used by the Minnesota State system.

    NHED ous comprised of five colleges that are each independently accredited and locally managed. Contrary to Aaron’s statement, they are not managed by the System. HCC and the other 4 colleges set their own budgeta and make their own management decisiona. NHED provides some central services and represents the five colleges’ interests at the Minnesota State system and work to align the five colleges’ policies and procedures where they benefit students. It’s a far from perfect governmental structure, but it’s based o.k. a strong culture of respect for education on the Range.

    President Maki has, and continues, to make good progress on sustaining and strengthening our commitment to higher education in Range communities. Consolidating may be in the cards in the future, but which community is willing to give up their jem?

    • I opted not to go into the weeds of explaining NHED, but the state formula largely controls HCC’s allocation. The rest is enrollment, which is the variable here.

      • RealityCheck raises some good points Aaron. If your interest is finding a solution which people buy into for NHED (or Hibbing), you need to get into the weeds. You can’t find a satisfactory long term solution without doing so. Plus, once you dive in, the weeds aren’t as weedy as you think. Enrollment is far from the only variable.

        • There’s enrollment. There’s allocation. And beyond that there is grants. We’re working on all three. For the reasons I describe above this isn’t easy. I didn’t explain NHED in my comment above because practically speaking it’s just a governance structure. We share an administrator and have a means of sharing services — and this structure doles out our allocation more or less the same way the state otherwise would. It’s that state formula that has the biggest practical impact on our allocation.

          But I’d bring us back to the point, which is that people (by way of their state government) have to decide what they want to do with these colleges. At some point this debate becomes *what do you want?* The choice will have consequences, in cost, in economic impact, in the readiness of our future generations to handle the coming changes in the workforce and society at large. Beyond that I don’t have much more to say here. In a way I regret bringing my “work topic” here to the blog because it’s hard for me to emotionally detach here in the comments section. I believe in my work very much and am proud of how effectively and efficiently we help people. This situation is painful. But it need not be permanent. Have a nice day.

  7. Maybe local colleges could start “splitting up” the degrees into smaller, more doable chunks for adult working people. Maybe they could do 1-3 classes that lead to a “nano-degree” (I know that’s from Udacity) or a “part of a degree” or a “certificate”, an important group of classes or topics that go together and then fit together with the next “nano-degree” or “certificate”. Basically, build a skill set over time that leads to one larger completed traditional degree, but yet, where each section is still valuable on its own standing and could lead to increased job opportunities and income as each part is accomplished.

  8. Bill Hansen says

    I’ve always wondered if the “student/classroom/teacher” paradigm isn’t more of an economic model than a a system for pedagogy. There will be many more choices available for learning as we go forward. Perhaps the need for regional, brick-and-mortar schools may be naturally declining as the result of a changing economic model?

    Also, I believe it is profoundly unhelpful to have banks financing higher education through student loans. Why should interest paid to random people be part of our public education system? It is a waste of money and puts a tremendous burden on former students just when they need it the least. The prospect of half a lifetime of crushing debt is definitely chilling students’ desire to attend college.

    As with many public policies, we could learn valuable lessons from our Scandinavian friends.

    • Banks lending money for folks to go to college is fine. That’s their business and a transaction between those two parties. The government lending money to the tune of $1.4 trillion to do the same is a disaster. Tuition costs have skyrocketed due to giving kids this free money (as most loans are not being repaid). This is a cruel, evil program distorting what the cost of college should be…and transferring the loan repayment burden to those who had nothing to do with the loans in the first place…us taxpayers.

  9. Also, another huge thing the community colleges could do is jump into the talks with their local high schools. At this time, it sounds like E-G and Virginia as well as Chisholm and Hibbing are starting to consider a new framework for offering courses based more on student interests and aptitudes (academy model). Maybe the colleges could start working with the high schools (more than PSEO and different than traditional CIS) where all 11th and 12th grade students have an opportunity to actually go to the college for classes. The K-12 model could maybe be turned into a K-14 model for a lot more students than we presently offer.

    • The colleges are in constant communication with the high schools. I agree that a more seamless K-14 transition would be very helpful. If you want my opinion, and this is the general opinion within the college ranks, it is that high schools should produce graduates who are able to pass the college placement tests rather than simply fixating on the state assessments which lose relevance after junior year of HS. A lot of kids end up losing their senior year to busywork.

      • Yes. It’s been interesting to watch legislators on K-12 committees try to force the colleges to find relevancy for the MCA exams. If the state had gone with an ACT, ASVAB, or Accuplacer as their high school test, the exam would have actually meant something to kids and parents and would have been transferable to college or career, even in other states. Instead we spent millions on designing our own and seem to be so invested in it we can’t just let it go.

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