After years of declining enrollment and corresponding revenue losses, five community colleges in northeastern Minnesota will combine into one institution.

The schools — in Hibbing, Grand Rapids, Virginia/Eveleth, International Falls and Ely — have seen enrollment fall 35% in the past decade and have some of the smallest student populations among the three dozen Minnesota State Colleges and Universities schools.

Under the consolidation plan, the six physical campuses will remain (Mesabi Range College has campuses in Virginia and Eveleth) but under the umbrella of a single college, which does not yet have a name. The new college will be operational by fall 2022.

"For us to continue to try to work independently didn't make sense anymore," said Michael Raich, interim president of the Northeast Higher Education District that oversees the five colleges. "We can serve students better and make our employees' lives more meaningful and more focused. The bottom line is we need to put a comprehensive enrollment management plan together and stem our losses and start to grow."

The demographics of northeastern Minnesota don't support five small colleges competing for a shrinking pool of students, Raich said, as the traditional college-age population declines and the number of older residents increases. Having a single college to recruit for will help broaden the school's reach, he said.

"Now when folks look at us they'll see a bigger entity and more unique programs," Raich said.

Combined, the five colleges had a fall 2019 enrollment of about 4,000 students.

A new name and mission will be presented to the Minnesota State Board of Trustees in late January, Raich said. The board already gave its initial blessing for the merger earlier this year.

Each of the college campuses — Hibbing Community College; Itasca Community College; Rainy River Community College; Mesabi Range College; and Vermilion Community College — will retain their local identity and athletic teams "as much as possible," Raich said.

"We fully intend to keep those identities alive," he said.

The Northeast Higher Education District was formed in 1999 to oversee the schools and share resources and business services.

Merging accreditations, student services, marketing and other offices is expected to benefit the college's bottom line and make life easier for students.

"Many students take classes at more than one campus," Itasca Community College counselor Rebecca Niemi Saccoman said in a news release. "It can be very cumbersome for them to manage multiple transcripts and multiple bills. The consolidation will allow them to have one transcript instead of two, three or four transcripts."

The state Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation (IRRR) offered an $820,000 grant to make the consolidation happen.

"From a regional workforce perspective, this consolidation strengthens all interconnected fronts," said Roy Smith, workforce development coordinator at IRRR. "Overall our communities, schools, students, businesses and industries will be more efficiently served."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496