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NDSU president warns deep budget cuts are coming

NDSU President David Cook said continued enrollment declines will result in a $10.5 million cut in state funding through the 2023-25 budget, forcing major realignents in university programs.

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North Dakota State University President David Cook presents his priorities during a meeting of the NDSU Foundation State and Local Relations Committee on Sept. 29, 2022, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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FARGO — North Dakota State University is facing “daunting” funding cuts totaling $10.5 million resulting from a decline in student credit hours that form the base of the state funding it receives.

The reduction, which amounts to a 5.48% decrease in NDSU’s base funding through 2023-25, is prompting a major evaluation of the university’s programs that will precipitate a transformation in what the university teaches and how it operates, NDSU President David Cook said.

The looming budget cuts were announced in a campus email sent the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 25, by Cook, who warned of difficulties ahead and said he cannot promise the “core university mission” will emerge unscathed. In his email, he called the budget cuts “daunting.”

“These reductions will be difficult, particularly because we have been absorbing cuts for a number of years, forcing everyone to do more with less for quite some time,” he wrote. “They also will be difficult because after a number of years of cutting, it is becoming more difficult to make reductions without impacting our core academic mission.”

The decline in student credit hours stems from a drop in student enrollment, which peaked in 2013-14, then began a steady decline that started to drop sharply in 2017-18, a trend that mirrors a nationwide plunge in enrollment.

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Committees are working to make recommendations about how NDSU can change to reflect changing demands for its graduates, and proposals for dealing with the budget cuts through a “long-term, transformative plan” are due in January, Cook said.

“A lot of really good work has been done,” Cook said in a meeting with The Forum Editorial Board after he made the campus announcement. Still, he added, “We have some hard work to do.”

The declining funding will come in two rounds, a $2.9 million reduction for the current fiscal year ending in June 2023, followed by a cut of $7.6 million for the 2023-25 budget biennium, a decrease of 5.48%.

“This is the landscape, and we have real challenges,” Cook told The Forum. “We’re going to have to rightsize, reorganize — just everything is on the table. That’s hard to do. But we can’t keep doing things the same way.”

Given the scale of the funding decline, cuts will be inevitable, Cook warned, but he could not say what is on the chopping block because the reorganization plan remains a work in progress.

“There’s no more change in the couch,” he said. “There’s no more money lying around.”

Declining enrollment, and the associated drop in student credit hours, is devastating because the state higher education formula is driven by those numbers, Cook said. The formula was revised in 2013, with input from the state’s 11 campuses, and was celebrated at the time.

But enrollment started to decline almost immediately after the new formula was implemented, and the effects have grown over time, forcing NDSU and other campuses to adapt. Since the fall of 2014, NDSU’s enrollment has dropped 13%. First-year enrollment, however, has been on the rise since 2019-20.

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Although the transition will be difficult, “It’s a once in a generation opportunity,” Cook said.

The magnitude of the budget challenge varies between campuses, ranging from a decline for 2023-25 of just over 1% at the University of North Dakota to 12.1% at the North Dakota State College of Science.

The reason UND faces a 1% decline compared to NDSU’s 5.48% drop could be due in part to UND’s strategic decision to significantly increase its online course offerings, something NDSU has been less agressive about, Cook said.

To succeed, NDSU must find the right mix of online and hybrid degrees and form close partnerships with business and industry leaders to offer programs that are in high demand for the changing workforce, Cook said.

Being responsive to workforce needs will help generate new revenues, he noted, adding that partnerships such as those with the Tri-College, which also includes Concordia College and Minnesota State University Moorhead, “make a lot of sense."

NDSU and UND have ongoing discussions of how they can cooperate, talks that so far have focused mostly on research programs, he said.

All academic programs are being evaluated, with an eye toward current and future market trends. “In some cases, we’re going to have to stop doing what we’ve done,” Cook said. “Everything is on the table.”

Interim Provost David Bertolini said large and small programs alike are being examined, and cuts likely will be made in programs of all sizes.

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“It’s a holistic approach,” he said.

Because of funding fluctuations, university administrators for years have sought a budget stabilization fund similar to the one that buffers budget shocks for the state’s elementary and secondary education system.

The North Dakota University System likely will approach the North Dakota Legislature, which convenes in January, with a request for some type of budget stabilization fund for higher education, Cook said.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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