Falling Enrollment Prompts Five College Merger

One state looks to make an evolutionary move to combat declining college enrollment rates by merging five colleges.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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As college enrollment continues to decline at a rapid pace, one state looks to deter this occurrence from happening farther through college mergers. Talks of University mergers have been on the rise, but Minnesota seeks to combat the problem on the rural level, as the state-approved the merger of five community colleges in northeast Minnesota. 

The Board of Trustees of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities approved the merger in an announcement Wednesday night. The colleges involved include Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Rainy River Community College, and Vermilion Community College. Beginning on May 23rd, the five colleges will conglomerate into one single institution, called the Minnesota North College with six different campuses throughout the state. 

The initiative was first laid out in February as a means to combat dropping enrollment numbers. In total, the Minnesota state system has lost about one-fifth of its enrollment numbers over the past decade, said Bill Maki, the interim vice chancellor for finance and facilities at the system. The Northeast Higher Education District reported more dire outlooks, showing a decline in full-time equivalent students of about 35% since 2011. 


Maki believes the primary reason for the declines in college enrollment is due to the five college’s rural locations within Minnesota. He says that demographics, the strong economy, and the low unemployment rate play a factor. Many leaders believe the merger will be “evolutionary”.

Sports teams will remain in place at each college campus, but most other aspects will find the college combined under one hub. Budgets, academic programming, and enrollment management systems will all be shared systemwide. Leaders in the college merger assured the public that this was a move solely based on enrollment numbers, explaining that it had nothing to do with financials. 

Randy Smith, the president of the Rural Community College Alliance believed the merging of the five colleges will actually benefit the district financially. The district has already successfully balanced sharing services while maintaining the individual institutions’ identities, he said, so this could also serve as a good model for other colleges facing similar challenges. In one press release, the president of Minnesota North College also praised the merger. Michael Raich said that “operationally merging” the five colleges would influence the “resources, talents, and marketability” that encompass many larger colleges. 


Some are worried that college mergers might have negative effects. But Raich also believes that the colleges will be able to maintain the “long-cherished” individual identities of these schools that have long been coveted in their communities. Others worry about possible job cuts.

Raich didn’t make any mention of possible staff cuts, but he did reference the concern when he said that the college system desired to become more efficient with the staff already on hand. He did however mention that staffing levels will depend on enrollment going forward, and the district looks to make use of retirement incentives over layoffs if it comes to that. 

The five colleges are set to officially merge on May 23rd. The unification is a big step forward that might be a reference to other states in the near future. But only time will tell whether or not the Minnesota merger can really make a dent in declining enrollment numbers or not.