Five NE Minnesota colleges move toward merger

The five Minnesota State colleges of Northeastern Minnesota include Itasca, Hibbing, Mesabi Range, Vermilion and Rainy River.

On Wednesday, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees approved plans to merge five community and technical colleges in Northeastern Minnesota. 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 2022.

These five affected colleges include:

  • Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids
  • Hibbing Community College
  • Mesabi Range College in Virginia and Eveleth
  • Vermilion Community College in Ely
  • Rainy River Community College in International Falls

“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.”

In the interests of disclosure I teach full time at Hibbing Community College. I am also involved in committees that are part of this process. However, I don’t speak for the college here at MinnesotaBrown.

Financial stress dictates this move. Specifically, enrollment at all five colleges dropped by about 40 percent since the turn of the 21st Century.

The reasons for declining enrollment are many and shared by the Minnesota State system as a whole. A reduction in state support for public colleges over time made college more expensive for students. Living expenses like rent and health care require more potential students to work full time rather than train for better jobs, something the current labor market supports.

But one unique factor has dogged these five schools: population loss.

Northeastern Minnesota high schools began bleeding students in the 1980s. Now, the local crop of new college freshman — born after the year 2000 — is as small as it’s ever been. Our colleges cater to all ages, but without that base of traditionally-aged students enrollment becomes cyclical and volatile.

For instance, enrollment swells when a mine or mill shuts down, but then shrinks again when those students return to the workforce. That’s good. It’s our job to serve those situations. But it’s hard to budget for them.

These five schools on six campuses are already part of what’s called the Northeast Higher Education District. They share a president, human resources, and business operations. A merger will allow them to share enrollment operations, financial aid, marketing, faculty and student services.

Change will be slow, but highly visible. The college will eventually have a new name though it will retain all six campuses. 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. Hibbing still has its widely recognized registered nursing program while Itasca will keep its well established engineering school.

Over time, however, a new reality will set in. Our colleges are smaller because our communities are smaller. This merger, as I understand it, will serve this new reality, rather than old traditions.

I’ve long advocated for strategic consolidation of local schools because of the need to focus on the student experience rather than buildings or mascots. A few days ago I wrote about the consolidation of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert high schools, also slated in Fall of 2022. This is a rather similar situation. This plan keeps local, affordable higher education and career training available to all these communities. That’s the priority.

Much remains unresolved. The name, of course, but also the administrative structure and a vast array of curriculum questions and personnel assignments. Yesterday, the board of trustees set the ball in motion. Over the next few months a planning committee will research and consider different options. Defined plans should emerge next year.

These discussions surprise no one inside these six campuses. Today puts the issue in stark terms before the broader public.

People. We need people, and the ideas they bring with them.


  1. I grew up in SW MN and was familiar with the Minnesota West system; separate campuses within relative driving distance of each other, each retaining individual program specialties. When I had the pleasure of serving NHED students in the mid 2010s, my curiosity churned as to why campuses in such proximity were in direct competition with each other offering similar programs. That is, until the proposal of an MI-B-V-E-G high school became public, and the strong community individualities in such a dense geographical footprint immediately stopped the gears of wonder. You are correct, money is the driving force here, combined with a shrinking local pool of potential enrollees; the recruiters have it rough. I do not have the MN West or M-State ledgers, but I feel they provide a great starting point. If anything, streamlining program offerings will increase each campus’ individuality, and maybe, just maybe, bring NJCAA Hockey back to HCC.

    • Thanks for that perspective, Aaron. And believe me, we’ve looked at hockey! The reason it went away was mostly because we ran out of schools in our class to play within the region. To maintain a program we would have to spend half the road series out of state. That’s the part the college couldn’t afford.

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