Veritas et scientia: e pluribus unum

Graduation day approaches for five northeastern Minnesota community and technical colleges. And as it so happens, this will be the last graduation day before the beginning of a new era in the region’s long tradition of higher education.

The festivities start Tuesday, May 10, when commencement takes place at Vermilion Community College in Ely.

Vermilion got its start as the Ely Junior College in 1922, making this its centennial. Famed environmental author and conservationist Sigurd F. Olson served as a dean early in the college’s history. Not surprisingly, Vermilion’s location at the doorstep of the Boundary Waters has always tied the college to the study of the water, science, wildlife and outdoor careers.

Then on Wednesday, May 11, Mesabi Range College will hold its graduation ceremonies at the new Iron Trail Event Center in Virginia. Mesabi Range represents the combination of two historic colleges, Eveleth and Virginia Junior Colleges and the later addition of the Range Technical College.

Founded in 1918, Eveleth Junior College once boasted one of the best college hockey teams in the country soon after its inception. When its team graduated and transferred to St. Cloud State, St. Cloud became national champions. Virginia founded its college in 1922, and also celebrates its 100 year anniversary this year. The vocational education movement got its start in the 1960s, with a new technical school built in Eveleth.

Likewise, we turn to Thursday, May 12 and commencement ceremonies at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids. Itasca was also founded in 1922 at the new Greenway High School in Coleraine, the “model community” imagined by the mining magnate and former Rough Rider John C. Greenway. Itasca Community College served the western Mesabi Range for decades before moving to a new campus in Grand Rapids in 1967.

On Friday, May 13, two more graduation ceremonies will take place. One will be at Rainy River Community College in International Falls. The newest of the local colleges, Rainy River was founded in 1967 at the urging of local citizens who wanted a local college to serve their remote borderland community.

Also on Friday, the commencement for Hibbing Community College will take place at the historic Hibbing High School auditorium. Hibbing Junior College was founded in 1916, making it the oldest of our region’s colleges and only the second junior college in the state of Minnesota. The brainchild of groundbreaking educational leader C.C. Alexander, Hibbing Junior College forged early relationships with the University of Minnesota and dramatically increased the number of four-year graduates from Hibbing. It was the model that the others all sought to replicate.

Later, the college would move out of the high school and eventually merge with the other campus of Range Technical College, making Hibbing, like Mesabi, a combined community and technical college.

You’ll note a pattern in these dates. Iron Range towns invested heavily in local higher education in the 1910s and ‘20s when tax laws allowed them to capture more of the iron mining revenue pouring out of the region at the time. Then in the 1960s, the state invested in moving these colleges out of the local school districts and making them state colleges.

In both eras, this was a shared investment; area colleges provided boundless opportunity to the sons and daughters of miners, but also provided training for future workers in critical local industries.

Now our colleges are merging into Minnesota North College, with campuses in all six affected communities: Ely, Eveleth, Grand Rapids, Hibbing, International Falls, and Virginia.

Full disclosure, I am an instructor at Hibbing Community College, soon to become Minnesota North’s Hibbing campus. I’ve been a part of this merger process these past two years.

Any merger like this comes with lots of serious questions and concern about the future. What does it mean?

Higher education now faces a national crisis. A combination of factors have drained enrollment and put unique financial pressure on colleges that serve the least wealthy students.

Locally, declining high school enrollments these last two decades have finally caught up with colleges. Furthermore, smaller families naturally sap the number of available students for local colleges.

Nationally, the cost of a four-year degree has skyrocketed, leaving many priced out of a degree or considering whether it’s worth it. Predatory lending practices have created a generation of people struggling to start their lives because of debt. And then the same political and culture wars that infect our community conversations have caused many to apply political labels on the very act of seeking advanced knowledge in educational disciplines.

With rising labor costs, companies are paying young people what an entry level college graduate might receive, giving the impression that one doesn’t need college.

All of this represents the sum challenge that all colleges are facing. It’s also the reason why the creation of Minnesota North is both a necessary response and a strategic goal for the region. These colleges all shared founding goal of providing affordable learning to spur upward social and economic mobility for students of these communities. Such mobility is necessary to preserve the kind of opportunities that many older people today enjoyed when they were starting in life.

Without it? A life of subservience, inequality, economic instability, and lack of control. In essence, the very same conditions that predated the founding of most of these colleges.

One-hundred years ago, many of these junior colleges boasted classes in Latin, a practice that has since fallen out of favor. But we see the roots of Latin not only in our English language but in the traditions of higher education, where Latin once allowed scholars from all over the world to converse fluently.

I don’t speak fluent Latin — that hasn’t been a requirement for most scholars in a long time — but I know enough to recognize the power in its words. “Veritas et scientia” means “truth and knowledge.” “E pluribus unum,” also our national motto, means, “Out of many, one.”

Our region no longer has the luxury of parochialism and in-fighting. We are in this together, literally and figuratively. New ideas can come from any of us, or someone new to our communities. Let us welcome such thought, wherever it comes from. We must endeavor to keep the staircase of knowledge clear of debris so that new generations may climb.

Next year, graduation day will return in all of these communities under a new banner.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, May 8, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Chris Freeman says

    Too bad your employer has taken “truth” and “science” out of the curriculum. Congrats on the self-made crisis.

  2. Jordan Vandal says

    Mr. Brown always enjoy your writings and blogs. I do not necessarily agree with them all, but it is more about hearing a different perspective and viewpoint at times. In your article, you refer to predatory lending as being a source of increased college debt (4 yr or technical school). Shouldn’t we also note the fact the people make poor decisions, and lessons in life can be hard? For some students they were never taught how to manage financial resources, or to be wary of the predatory lending asking critical thinking questions, which is unfortunate.

    • That’s fair. I mean, some students do make poor choices in taking out loans they don’t need or in how they use loan funding. I see that. But when an entire industry exploits that fact, that’s a systemic problem. Reducing the root cost of college should be the primary goal. Doing that will require something politically unpopular, however, and that is reducing the subsidy for private college financial aid to cut the raw cost of public college. Generally, people look at this reductively. “College” (like John Belushi’s Animal House shirt) isn’t just one thing. It’s four year “fancy” schools and blue collar public schools, two-year community and technical colleges, with students ranging from GED-holding non-traditional students to high achieving academic all-stars. I think the political backlash against colleges is typically tied to an impression of what colleges do, not the reality.

      • Gerald S says

        I think that it would be unfortunate if politicians were to try to force private colleges and public colleges into a zero sum game in competing for the money both need to offer quality education. It would be better if funding for higher education were to be restored to the levels of real spending that prevailed from the late 40’s to the early aughts, before tax-cutting zeal and economic downturns collided to cause education cuts that included muscle, not just fat.

        Minnesota politicians and citizens need to review the economic facts about post-secondary education. Minnesota’s strong history of access to quality post-secondary programs is one of the main forces that propelled the state past all its neighbors in terms of economic growth and take home pay. Higher ed institutions also provided the second leg of that stool in the form of research that drove state development, from the taconite process to innovative medical technology. The decision to reduce the state’s commitment to higher ed, beginning in the aughts, is starting to show in the form of weakening of growth.

        Spending on higher ed, research, and their partner infrastructure from roads and sewers to broadband, only seems to cost the public money. In the long run, it actually boosts income for both individuals and businesses, increases quality of life, and fattens tax collections without raising taxes. The investment made in higher ed from 1945 to 2002 was one of the best investments the state ever made, and paid for itself many times over.

        Public higher ed should be low enough cost so that kids can “work their way” through school to a career-making degree in fewer than six years with no residual debt, as they could in 1945-1970. Private schools should not be sheared to provide for that. In the times my father and I lived through, that was the way things worked. During my working career, the tax checks I wrote to the state every year more than paid for the total they invested in me, providing real-dollar tax collections that covered the cost many times over.

  3. Joe musich says

    Excellent piece. The Community Colleges without knowing were likely already moving in the direction of greater collaboration. A professor at Mcalester equated the Range cities as a different neighborhoods in one big city. Now this city has it’s own college. I expect nothing but good to come out of that reorganization. I received my AS from HCC decades ago and I am glad that I did. Nothing else was affordable for a kid working in a shoe store. And that is even more true today. They education there eventually put me on a course no pun intended to teaching myself. In the end like the Iron Range we are all parts of a whole. We grow with the help of others. As a new tomato plant needs help so do the young. A correct mix brings healthy plants. Overdoing any of the aspects of agriculture will not help. In regarding to thinking on college debt the manufactured creation of the learning world only stiles growth. Growth is what we all need for each other’s sake. Thanks once again for your observations,

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