Omdahl: Higher ed: More boards, fewer students

After 11 months of study, the 15-member task force on higher education proposed the addition of two new boards to the present system. At the same time, North Dakota State University Economics Professor Beth Ingrim is pointing to the oncoming drought of high school graduates.

In a column circulating in North Dakota newspapers, Ingrim points out that even though North Dakota has a higher than average fertility rate, we are not producing enough high school seniors to sustain the present system of higher education.

Since 2006, Ingrim points out, the number of high school students attending college in North Dakota has increased by 326 students, putting North Dakota with South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming as the four states producing the fewest college-going high school students in the country. Enrollment at our institutions has already stagnated and, without a miracle, will gradually decline.

Invariably we hear complainers in the legislature who claim that North Dakota should get rid of the out-of-state students who are driving up the cost of higher education. The brutal truth is that out-of-state enrollment is a critical component of the revenue stream for both NDSU and the University of North Dakota. Around 67 percent of the NDSU student body is from out-of-state. At UND, it’s 60 percent. With enrollments around 11,000 and in-state tuition around $8,000, cutting out the out-of-state students would reduce tuition income by multi-millions.

The institutions will not be able to look to the state to bail them out. Through the years, the state’s share has been in steady decline. The state provides funding for higher education somewhere in the 20 percent range. Tuition has been used to fill the gap, meaning that the state is shifting the burden to more student debt.

And so as we face a survival crisis down the road, we want to create two more boards of higher education, one for UND, one for NDSU and the present board with the rest of the institutions. This is a major policy shift after 30 years of struggling to create a unified higher education system. Of course, we never attained the unification that the creators had hoped. The interest groups with a stake in higher education all manipulated the system so little unification occurred. Given the political nature of North Dakota, we should not have been surprised.

Now we are going to reverse course and fragment the system so that there will be nothing unified about it. The two largest institutions will be cut free to chart their own courses of action. While the governor hopes three boards will make them more “nimble,” it will also make them less accountable and more parochial. For the life of me, I don’t understand this conclusion that structure is the main problem facing higher education.

While teaching about state and local governments in the United States, I found that all states and local governments have weird structures. Nevertheless, they all seem to work. There is nothing wrong with the present structure of high education. If there are problems, charge them to the people running the system.