This is what the death spiral of a public university looks like: lowered state support degrades the quality of the university, which results in fewer students attending, which results in both less tuition revenue and, because the legislative formula for state appropriations is based on the number of students, results in less appropriated state money in the next legislative session. Repeat as necessary.
This may sound abstract or theoretical, but it’s not: we’ve been watching it occur in real-time at North Dakota State University for the last few years. First came budget cuts mandated by the state legislature: $6.4 million in mid-year cuts during fiscal year 2016 and $27.8 million in cuts for the 2017-19 biennium. Despite a political rhetoric that promises painless cuts only of “waste” and “bloat,” these cuts have consequences, and prospective students are, in the lingo of free-market capitalism, “voting with their wallets”; NDSU reported a $6 million revenue drop in 2018 and a $5.5 million drop in 2019 due to declining enrollment. As a result, departments across NDSU are currently preparing a “budget exercise” for further 10% cuts for 2020 and have been told to expect further reductions for 2021 as well from, you guessed it, decreased enrollment and decreased state appropriations.
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The University of North Dakota is a few years farther along in its own death spiral, and the upper administration at both universities know it and are also “voting with their feet”: (now former) UND President Mark Kennedy took a position last year as president of the Colorado University system, and NDSU President Dean Bresciani is also trying to get out: we know he applied to at least one other position, since he was a finalist for the presidency of Ohio University in 2017.
The conviction that budgets can be endlessly cut without compromising the quality of the university is being discredited in a real-life economics experiment being conducted on the young people of North Dakota, as is the conviction that students won’t compare their options for a world class education in a globally competitive higher education landscape, as is the idea that as long as the Bison win the students will come. With administrators voting with their feet and students vote with their wallet, the only solution is for North Dakotans to vote with their ballot for anyone who will pull the university out of the death spiral.
Goldwyn is an associate professor of English at North Dakota State University. The opinions expressed are his own.