ST. PAUL — Five Iron Range colleges will become one under a proposal driven by persistent enrollment declines being felt throughout the Minnesota State higher education system.

The system’s Board of Trustees on Wednesday, Jan. 29, unanimously approved the merger of the Northeast Higher Education District schools, which have cooperated since 1999, sharing a president and some other services.

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. Officials say a merger would strengthen the campuses by reducing overlapping services, expanding academic options and making it easier to support students.

The plan emerged last fall after four years of joint strategic planning.

“We picture an opportunity and a vision for our region that essentially we would be stronger together,” interim president Michael Raich said.

Despite 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.

“Significant and sustained enrollment decline … limits the district’s ability to make strategic investments, results in fewer employees to serve students, and leaves the district’s colleges vulnerable,” according to materials for Wednesday’s board meeting in St. Paul.

Raich said the colleges’ accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, signaled support for the plan in November.

The merged schools will get a new name that’s yet to be determined. Raich said each will get to leverage the strengths of the larger unit while maintaining their “strong community identities.”

The schools are Mesabi Range College (with campuses in Eveleth and Virginia) and Vermilion (Ely), Rainy River (International Falls), Itasca (Grand Rapids) and Hibbing community colleges.

Statewide decline

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 Wednesday, just 66 percent of Minnesota’s 2018 high school graduating class enrolled in college the following fall; that figure was 70 percent four years prior. And those graduates increasingly are enrolling outside of Minnesota.

Among the Minnesota State system, enrollment is down about 12 percent in the past five years. That includes a 2.7 percent drop this school year that was larger than the schools expected.

Trustees learned Tuesday that 28 of the 37 institutions posted operating losses last year. The Minnesota State system lost $39 million for the year, just under 2 percent of total revenue.

Still, the schools largely are managing well, leaving enough money in reserve, chief financial officer Bill Maki said.

He said every college and university has a fund balance of at least 5 percent of its annual spending, which wasn’t the case a few years ago. “This is very good news,” he said.