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Jackson: Remove the chains on higher education

Higher education in North Dakota needs more competition and decentralization, not increased hierarchical bureaucracy. Recent debates over North Dakota's higher education system have focused on two main issues: increased centralization of universi...

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Higher education in North Dakota needs more competition and decentralization, not increased hierarchical bureaucracy.

Recent debates over North Dakota's higher education system have focused on two main issues: increased centralization of university system authority by legislators and members of the State Board of Higher Education and calls for innovation by Governor Burgum. Unfortunately, these two goals are incompatible. The innovative ability of a centralized and uniform university system is limited by the whims of the institutional bureaucracy.

We need to remove the chains of uniformity and offer the citizens of North Dakota diverse learning options. As curriculum courses, schedules and even prices are allowed to vary across our institutions, more citizens will be able to find an institution that matches their respective needs and desires. As they differentiate themselves, institutions will be forced to innovate in order to compete for students and their tuition dollars.

In order to promote competition inside the system and foster innovation and value creation, each institution should be allocated state money based on an acceptable measure related to the number of students, credits or degrees awarded (determining the appropriate measure is not my purpose here). The institutions can then supplement this state appropriation with tuition dollars, grants, donations, etc. It is imperative that the institutions be allowed the freedom to set their own tuition rates, curricula, schedules, visions, brands, etc., in order for entrepreneurial and innovative ideas to flourish.

North Dakota has the highest number of four-year universities per capita in the United States. Some have suggested that campus closures are a necessity, but in the competitive system I propose, no decision has to be made on campus closures. If a campus fails to offer a value proposition to potential students, it will not have the state-appropriated funds or the tuition dollars necessary to operate. Closures will come about through the decisions of students as they weigh the value proposition of each alternative.

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Currently, many costless policies are controlled by the NDUS system. For example, all six universities operate on the same academic calendar and use the same course numbering system. It can be argued that such uniformity creates the potential for cost savings, but it also limits creativity and innovation.

Universities across the country have a variety of academic calendars. Many universities do not start until after Labor Day, while others offer short mini-mesters in the winter and summer. Some schools only meet for class on Monday-Thursday, leaving Fridays open for other non-class activities. Currently, none of our North Dakota universities can use their calendar to offer a value opportunity to potential students.

There is no greater impetus for change than what can be offered by increased competition. The key to spurring innovation and creating value (high quality at low cost) in higher education is to allow each of our institutions to compete with one another by offering a distinct menu of options to our citizenry. This benefits our state, our university system and, most importantly, our students.

Jackson is the director of the NDSU Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise and an associate professor of agribusiness and applied economics. The views expressed in this piece belong to the author and do not represent the official views of North Dakota State University.

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