ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Five colleges on Minnesota’s Iron Range hit by declining enrollment in recent years plan to merge.

Minnesota State higher education system trustees endorsed the merger of the Northeast Higher Education District schools Wednesday in an unanimous vote.

The colleges, which have a combined enrollment of about 2,900 full-time students, share a president and some services.

But, despite the cooperation the colleges competed for students and had their own budgets, academic programs, enrollment management systems, accreditation and sports programs, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

The schools include Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Rainy River Community College and Vermilion Community College.

Officials said a merger will benefit the colleges by reducing overlapping services, expanding academic options and making it easier to support students.

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

The new structure is expected to be in place by fall 2022.

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