REGIONAL— Enrollment at the five community colleges that make up the Northeast Higher Education District has fallen by a third in the past eight years, and that’s prompting a closer look …
REGIONAL— Enrollment at the five community colleges that make up the Northeast Higher Education District has fallen by a third in the past eight years, and that’s prompting a closer look at how the schools will function in the future.
Internal discussions among a 25-member regional master academic planning committee, comprised of district administrators, faculty, and staff, have been ongoing for months and an initial decision on a possible restructuring is likely to be made in late November, according to Mike Raich, Interim President of NHED. That’s a bit later than originally planned, but Raich is now planning to meet with Minnesota State Colleges Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and the state’s higher education board later this month to discuss ideas intended to respond to declining enrollment and to focus on improving educational opportunities for students.
Among the options under consideration is a proposal to merge the district’s five colleges, each of which is separately accredited today, into a single accredited institution with six campuses. While the five colleges already work closely together on many aspects of their operations, Raich said the merger concept would provide more flexibility for students to take needed coursework at multiple campuses, without having to deal with transfers, as is the case currently. The change could also reduce some duplication of services.
Right now, the plan, as outlined in a report issued in September, includes the following six “pillars” that make up the overall vision. Those pillars include:
Academic programming, courses, and credits will be aligned on a district level.
Signature programs at each campus will be preserved and grown to help attract students.
Access for students will be increased through a proactive co-location of programs.
Relationships with K-12 partners will be strengthened through programming.
Diversity will be increased among faculty, staff, administration, and students.
Global programs will be developed.
Earlier discussions had included the possibility of merging four of the schools and leaving Vermilion Community College as a stand-alone institution due to the distinct nature of the Ely-based school’s student body. But Raich said that concept has since been shelved.
Raich was hesitant to talk in detail about how a merger of the five schools might take place, noting that any changes are likely to evolve over time. Even if the merger is greenlighted by a smaller “president’s cabinet” later this year, Raich noted that the process for approval of any final plan would likely take months and require buy-in from the chancellor and accrediting agencies. “Really, what we’re talking about is something that will be a long process, where we probably wouldn’t see any real changes for years,” said Raich.
While the planning effort has been extensive, not everyone in the district is fully on board with the process. Some faculty have told the Timberjay they would like to see a more open process, with additional engagement from other faculty and community stakeholders, and they worry that the final decision will ultimately be made by just a small handful of individuals. At least one member of the regional academic planning committee has also expressed concerns about the cost of consultants who have been involved in facilitating the discussions to date.
Raich defends the nature of the discussions and said such concerns are to be expected in any process designed to bring institutional change. “There has been input from many sources, that goes back through years of strategic planning. Input is taken a lot of different ways,” he said.
Raich said any plan that is ultimately approved would require buy-in from faculty and students. “This is not something we can do in isolation,” he said.
While Raich said planning for change has been centered on improving the student experience at the district’s five colleges, he acknowledges that it is also an effort to respond to declining enrollment. As recently as 2011, nearly 4,500 students paid full-year tuition between the five community colleges, Itasca, Hibbing, Mesabi, Vermilion, and Rainy River. In 2019, that number has fallen below 3,000, a 33-percent decline in just 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 NHED schools aren’t the only ones experiencing declining enrollment in Minnesota. In fact, enrollment in the entire Minnesota State College system has declined by 21 percent in the same time frame. Raich said state and community colleges tend to experience enrollment declines during periods of strong economic activity. Minnesota has experienced robust economic activity since at least 2013, which was when the state finally saw employment fully recover from the effects of the 2008 Great Recession. In a strong job market, many young people opt to enter the labor market directly rather than pursue the kind of two-year degree program typically offered at community colleges.
Still, the decline in enrollment at NHED schools is outpacing the statewide trend, and that’s a demographic problem that might be tougher 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. And he notes that Rainy River isn’t the only college in the region that is struggling. “It’s getting difficult at all our schools to be independent,” he said.
While declining enrollment in any college system could be a sign that the course offerings aren’t well-aligned with the local job market, Raich doesn’t believe that’s the case with NHED. The system has actually worked closely with employers in recent years to develop educational and training programs relevant to the workforce demands. “I think our colleges have done a good job of providing educational opportunities that reflect the area need,” he said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of potential campuses in a merger from five to six. While Mesabi Range is considered one college, it maintains a campus in both Virginia and Eveleth and the proposed merger would not change that configuration.