HIBBING, Minn. — Nine-hundred seventy students graduated from Minnesota North College last month, little aware of how their experience over the past year holds lessons for the entire state.

If you haven't heard of Minnesota North, that's OK. It formed just last year in the merger of five community colleges across six northern Minnesota towns spanning an area the size of Maryland.

On the surface, the merger is a recognition of the cold reality I wrote about last week: the effects of declining population and leveling economic growth of Minnesota beyond the Twin Cities are turning more severe. Enrollment at the combined schools of Minnesota North fell 30% over the last 10 years.

"How do you turn that around?" Michael Raich, president of Minnesota North, asked. "There's two major ways. Number one is you find a new audience. And the second way is to do a better job with retaining and helping the people at the college to be successful."

But there's more to the Minnesota North story. As I've also written about from my first column onward, the leveling-off of growth represents opportunity as well as challenge for Minnesotans.

And the leaders of Minnesota North show what I mean. They did much more than look for ways to cut costs.

Since making the decision to merge in 2019, they've taken a fundamentally different approach to the role that a community college plays with students and employers. Teachers and staff became more deeply involved in students' lives, worked more directly with employers and recruited more people on the fringes of the workforce.

"What you see in Minnesota North is 'All right, here we are. Are we going to make this work or are we going to give up?'" said Tuleah Palmer, chief executive of the Blandin Foundation, the Grand Rapids-based philanthropy that's an occasional benefactor to the schools that now form Minnesota North. "They went through this grip-the-guts moment and said 'Let's make this work.'"

Faculty members did the heavy lifting of ironing out differences in curriculum and requirements, Raich said. "For classes that you could never think that you could offer at a small campus, now we can offer them at multiple campuses because we use distance technology," he said. "It's done with no barriers, no separate registrations or separate billing or separate transcripts."

Minnesota North united Hibbing Community College in Hibbing, Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Vermilion Community College in Ely, Rainy River Community College in International Falls and the Mesabi Range College, with campuses in Eveleth and Virginia.

They are all part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, and for years they shared some administration and technology. Indeed, residents in northern Minnesota for 20 years have buzzed about the prospect that the five schools would merge.

They made the decision to merge because, in addition to declining enrollment, they noticed other changes in the marketplace.

Administrators began to notice that more and more people were enrolling in more than one school — for example, Ely for some courses and International Falls for others. But the schools were accredited separately, meaning courses at one did not count toward a degree at another.

Meanwhile, with employers in the region clamoring for more workers, leaders of the schools felt greater pressure to make sure that, once someone enrolled, they succeeded.

Raich describes Minnesota North's approach to students succinctly: "Make sure they're getting exactly what they need instead of expecting them to meet our systems."

In 2016, the college in Hibbing became the starting point for a program called Empower that was designed to assist women taking courses in fields that are traditionally dominated by men, including law enforcement, auto mechanics and electrical engineering.

The program has become a template for broader outreach, particularly to students who have been underserved by education in the past. With initial funding from the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, the Empower program paid some of the costs that the students encountered, such as for uniforms and body armor for women cadets in law enforcement.

Empower stepped in when Kaija Gams of Chisholm was on the verge of suspending her law enforcement studies because of financial strain. "It helped me pay off my semesters when I was at the point of literally not being able to pay for anything else," said Gams, who is in the second year of the three-year program.

The program pays for faculty member Angela Heikkila, a graduate of the electrical maintenance program who spent two decades as an electrician in the Twin Cities, to counsel female students in male-dominated fields.

"This is building a meaningful connection early and, while they're here, they have this advocate," said Trent Janezich, executive director of advancement and customized training solutions. "Once they are educated and done, the model doesn't stop."

One of Minnesota North's expanding services is the customized training that it develops at the request of employers in northern Minnesota. Need a group of employees trained in Excel? The college will send a faculty member to the business.

"Our five separate colleges have been on defense for so long," Janezich said. "Now with the merger, I feel like this is the crossroads where we can get on offense."

For years, the five colleges held open-house events to attract students. But the Empower program began holding women-in-the-workforce events in high schools to demonstrate career possibilities. Now, welding instructor Anna Wald said she wants to reach out to junior high students. She may soon get her wish — and more.

With funds from several philanthropies, Minnesota North is equipping a semi-trailer as a mobile welding lab. On a late winter day, Raich and Janezich drove up to Nett Lake on the Bois Forte Reservation 60 miles north of Hibbing to talk with tribal leaders about holding courses there.

Demand is high for welders on the Iron Range. "That program needs to get on the road," Janezich said.

When it does, that will just be one more sign that Minnesota North is at the forefront of efforts to relieve Minnesota's workforce scarcity.