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Five small community colleges in Minnesota plan to merge by 2022 as higher education in the state over all suffers enrollment declines.
The Northeast Higher Education District, which includes Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Rainy River Community College and Vermilion Community College, already shares a president, business services, summer academic programming and more.
While rural community colleges nationally are struggling with enrollment, one advocate says the plan in Minnesota is unique for rural institutions and could be a good model for others to follow suit.
Uniting the colleges under a single accreditation will be the largest change under the merger, according to Mike Raich, interim president of the district and a former dean and provost. Budgets, academic programming and enrollment management systems will also be shared, but sports teams will stay independent.
"The process has been evolutionary," Raich said.
The decision comes as the system tries to right itself against falling enrollments.
Over all, the Minnesota state system has lost about 20 percent of its enrollment over the past decade, according to Bill Maki, interim vice chancellor for finance and facilities at the system. While officials work to improve recruitment and retention, the system's persistence rate has been relatively flat over the past decade.
The majority -- 28 -- of the 37 institutions in the system also showed operating losses last year, but Maki said that is just one measurement, which happens to include noncash items like depreciation of facilities.
Measured on a cash basis, the system is "very stable," he said.
At the Northeast Higher Education District, the enrollment drop has been more precipitous, with a decline in full-time-equivalent students of about 35 percent since 2011.
The main reasons for the decline are the district's rural locations and its demographics, the strong economy, and the low unemployment rate, Maki said.
"It’s tight for our rural schools," said Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance. "When we take a chart and list the issues that rural colleges face, financial challenges are always going to be No. 1, and enrollment management is always going to be No. 2."
Smith believes the merger will help 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.
The single accreditation will make the Northeast Higher Education District more efficient, Raich said. While it's doing well financially on a cash basis, he said the enrollment loss has been challenging.
After merging accreditation, staff will have single databases to look at student records, bills and personnel lists, as opposed to having to toggle between five databases. Raich didn't say that the district is planning staff cuts, but rather that it wants to be more efficient with the staff it already has. He added that staffing levels will depend on enrollment, and the district would utilize attrition and retirements rather than layoffs if cuts were necessary.
It will also be easier for students to transfer within the district, and the colleges will no longer be competing with each other for students.
The plan to merge started at the grassroots level, according to Maki, who was previously president of the district. While enrollment and finances played a role, the district also wanted to make the experience easier for students and create closer relationships with employers and the K-12 systems.
"Having five separate accreditations created many internal barriers to move between institutions, so by merging, many of those barriers will be removed," he said.
As far as opposition, Raich said there was "not as much as I would've expected."
While there is concern about maintaining local pride, he said having the district work together through the changes has helped bring people around to the idea of a merger.
"We’ve really come to the realization that we’re talking about a vision for our future," he said. "A vision that we’re stronger together."
Aaron Brown, a full-time speech communications instructor and chair of the academic affairs and standards council at Hibbing Community College, said it "hasn't been as contentious as many thought it might be because it's been coming for a long time."
"The reality is, our declining enrollments have really forced our hand institutionally to figure out a different way of surviving," Brown said. "Because we're already collaborating, all this does is further formalize the arrangement, and it allows us to do things like share students."
Brown is hopeful that the merger will allow the colleges to maintain their existing ratio of full-time instructors to adjuncts.
While faculty members at Hibbing aren't excited about the arrangement, he said, they know it's necessary and that they could either come together to help students or "whine and complain."
It helps that faculty have a good relationship with the current administration, Brown said, and that faculty members have been involved in the process.
Matt Williams, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty union, provided a statement saying, “Obviously, the merger of five schools is a significant change and change of this magnitude brings a range of emotions. We’ve communicated to the Minnesota State System our desire that all members of these campus communities -- faculty, staff, administrators, and even students -- are treated with dignity, respect, and compassion throughout this process.
"Right now there are a lot of questions and uncertainties regarding the implementation of this merger, and we will continue to work to ensure faculty feel supported and their concerns are heard as the path forward comes into focus.”
Sharing resources while maintaining local identities and commitments to the college's local communities will be a key part of the merger's success, Smith said.
Rural colleges tend to shy away from mergers because they don't want to lose their identities, according to Smith, and the rural communities tend to want more independence.
But the financial challenges these colleges are facing "are certainly there, and I don't see them going away any time soon."
"I think other rural communities can take this model and learn from that," Smith said. "The financial challenges are going to be an issue, and [the colleges] are going to have to think about this."