BISMARCK -- Leaders of North Dakota’s higher education system asked legislators on Monday, Jan. 18, to not enact budget cuts that could result in significant job losses.

During a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting Monday, leaders in the North Dakota University System noted the system has suffered hundreds of job losses in the past five years. Since 2015, 800 jobs have been lost. While some of those positions were closed vacancies, an additional 200 jobs lost would mean the system has reduced its workforce by nearly 1,000.

Those cuts would be “extremely significant” and “very impactful,” said Tammy Dolan, chief financial officer for the system.

“The institutions did a fabulous job of adjusting to that first budget cut,” Dolan said, adding campuses minimized the impact to programs and student services, but a new round of budget cuts may mean loss of academic programming. “We’re down to the meat and bones of the budget."

Gov. Doug Burgum’s proposed budget calls for a 7.5% reduction in the system’s funding formula. The funding formula is a mechanism to give state dollars to institutions based on the number of credit hours each school completes, rather than per student.

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That cut would reduce the system’s general fund budget from $648.7 million to $629.3 million. The system is asking for a base budget of $660.5 million.

Dolan said system leaders felt the cuts were more than what they “thought that was fair or appropriate.”

In his budget address in December, Burgum pointed to decreasing enrollments across the system since 2009-11.

“Total funding for higher education next biennium is proposed at $2.6 billion, including a general fund decrease of $9.3 million from the current biennium’s legislative base level,” Burgum said last month. “This reflects a trend of decreasing enrollment and a 7.5 percent reduction in the formula payment rate.”

Additionally, Burgum noted that higher education’s proportion of general fund spending is still higher in the 2021-23 biennium than it was eight years ago.

“Funding for higher education as a percentage of ongoing general fund revenue will also remain higher than in 2013-15, at 13 percent compared with 11 percent,” he said in December.

Burgum’s budget does add increased support for the Higher Education Challenge Grant program, from $9.4 million to $20 million – $10 million from the general fund and $10 million from potential June 30, 2021, Legacy Fund earnings – to support North Dakota’s public colleges and universities.

Legislative general fund appropriations make up about 25% of the university system’s budget, Dolan said. The other 75% is made up of tuition dollars, grants, donations and other federal funding.

The system is also diverging with Burgum on proposed salary increases. Burgum has proposed a 2% salary increase for state employees in each year of the biennium. On Monday, the system asked legislators to consider a 3% salary increase each year.

North Dakota isn’t the only state facing murky budgets this winter.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that the University of Minnesota, which also is facing budget uncertainty, announced last week that it was halting admission to a dozen liberal arts doctoral programs, including English, history, political science and theater arts. Another 15 liberal arts doctoral programs are accepting a limited number of students in the fall.

Pausing admission to the doctoral programs would save from $2 million to $4 million, the Star-Tribune reported Friday.

In North Dakota, the higher education system also presented its top capital projects, including a $2 million renovation of Dakota College at Bottineau’s Old Main for its nursing program, as well as a $14 million investment in North Dakota State’s Ag Products Development Center.

Burgum previously said a reduction in the funding formula doesn’t have to equate to job losses and challenged schools to find new methods to configure their budgets, including finding ways to use all of their classroom space or monetize dorms that aren’t being used.

Nick Hacker, chair of the State Board of Higher Education, said the university system is not looking for additional space at this time.

He also added that the system has upgraded hundreds of classrooms since the pandemic began, allowing courses to be carried out online when classroom capacity is limited.

The university system received $35.9 million in CARES Act funding in June to outfit classrooms with technology software, instructional design resources and classroom/faculty restructuring to improve physical distancing measures on campuses.