Case Study: Northeast Higher Education District Bell Program

Northspan Study Helps Launch New Engineering Program on Iron Range

Challenge: The Northeast Higher Education Program (now Minnesota North College) sought to assess the financial feasibility of a proposed bachelor’s degree program using its innovative Iron Range Engineering curriculum to recruit students nationwide.

Northspan’s Role: Analyzed background assumptions and worked with stakeholders to assess financial viability of the program. Northspan staff convened a series of work sessions with program leadership to test assumptions, attended a two-day workshop with community college engineering instructors from across the country, and analyzed their feedback on the concept. Presented a final report assessing the program’s financial feasibility to Northeast Higher Education District leadership.

Result: Pilot program launched in summer 2019, with plans to scale up to full capacity by 2023.

Much of the essential work in community and business development takes place behind the scenes, and Northspan often provides this groundwork to create new opportunities in the communities we serve. Recently, Northspan’s organizational development services helped to launch the Bell Program, a groundbreaking engineering bachelor’s degree program within the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED), which is the umbrella organization for five community and technical colleges in northeast Minnesota. In November 2017, NHED President Bill Maki and Iron Range Engineering (IRE) founder Ron Ulseth engaged Northspan to conduct a financial feasibility study on the viability of a new program within IRE. IRE students are upper-division engineering students who are enrolled at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

The Bell Program aims to attract students from across the country who have completed an associate’s degree or necessary prerequisites for a five-semester engineering program that includes a five-month immersive experience on the Iron Range and a two-year co-op experience with an employer coupled with ongoing coursework and periodic returns to the Range for assessment. A version of the co-op-based educational model had been championed by Ulseth for the existing IRE program and has received considerable acclaim, including recognition as an emerging leader of innovation in engineering education from the MIT School of Engineering in 2018.

To secure start-up funding for the program’s early years as it ramps up to full capacity, NHED needed to project Bell Program financials and demonstrate its eventual self-sustainability, so Northspan came on board to provide the necessary careful and dispassionate vetting of the program and its underlying operating assumptions. Northspan’s Bob Palmquist and Karl Schuettler met with Maki, Ulseth, and other IRE staff members numerous times over a six-month period and attended a January workshop hosted at Giants Ridge for engineering faculty from across the country, in which participants further explored the nuances of the educational model and the program’s ability to attract students. Bob and Karl gathered and analyzed information from the participants, which further helped refine the assumptions.

In spring 2018, Northspan produced a report that summarized the Bell Program’s underlying assumptions and projected its budget from initial launch until it reached full capacity, including several scenarios based on different enrollment projections. NHED then shared this report with potential funders, which ultimately led the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation to commit $5 million over four years to launch the Bell Program.

“Northspan’s expertise and experience in business development translated well for us needing to create a sustainable financial plan for a higher education program. Bob and Karl complement each other well in how they approach their work from a knowledge base grounded both in financial forecasting and understanding multiple aspects of our region,” said Bill Maki, President of the Northeast Higher Education District.

The Bell Program will welcome its first students to its base of operations at Giants Ridge in summer 2019. The program will create numerous well-paying jobs for faculty and support staff, give students strong support while attending classes in a resort-like setting, and bolster IRE’s reputation as a thought leader in engineering education. Northspan’s financial expertise, knowledge of the region, and commitment to economic development leave us ready to assess opportunities for education and growth on the Iron Range such as the Bell Program, and our staff is proud to have played a role in making it happen.

View the full report here: Bell Program Financial Feasibility Study Apr 2018

Reference: Bill Maki, Minnesota State Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities and Former NHED President,

Contact Karl Schuettler at for more information.