North Dakota’s higher education system is facing another set of cuts that could result in the loss of hundreds of jobs across the state.

“This would be detrimental to student success and our ability to serve the needs of the state,” State Board of Higher Education Chair Nick Hacker said.

In his latest budget recommendations, Gov. Doug Burgum proposed a $31.6 million reduction in ongoing general fund appropriations in the next biennium. That reduction, if enacted, would leave the North Dakota University System with a $510.1 million budget. Included in that cut is a 7.5% reduction in the formula payment rate to higher education, which Hacker says is a particular point of concern for the system.

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.

The cut in formula funding means nearly a $40 million reduction in dollars used for salaries, benefits and operational expenses for North Dakota’s higher-ed institutes, Hacker said. Those cuts could mean the loss of 200 faculty and staff jobs across the system.

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“These faculty and staff are the same people who have remained committed to the education of our students while ensuring our campuses have been adaptable throughout the pandemic,” Hacker said.

"We haven't had extra people for the pandemic," he added.

But after Thursday's budget speech, Burgum challenged that a reduction in the funding formula doesn’t have to equate to job losses.

Schools can find ways to use all of their classroom space or monetize dorms that aren’t being used, Burgum suggested. There are ways to keep top performing faculty and staff, too, if presidents take a tough look at their budgets.

If a program has declining enrollment or a very small number of students, colleges may need to consider shuttering it, he said Thursday during a meeting with the editorial board of the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

While the system has suffered cuts in recent years – in the 2015-17 biennium the system’s ongoing general fund appropriation was $614.5 million; in 2017-19 it dropped to $507.2 million – Burgum said spending on higher education is still up compared to a decade ago. Meanwhile, as spending goes up, enrollment has been dipping and there’s been an increase in full-time employees systemwide, he said.

The state’s colleges and universities also saw an influx of dollars this spring thanks to coronavirus funding from the federal CARES Act. While a portion of those dollars went to direct virus prevention efforts, a large chunk went to upgrading classrooms and technology to make classes accessible for remote learning.

Getting more courses online was something that has been needed for some time, Burgum said, but the CARES Act dollars helped propel those projects forward.

Online education doesn’t just mean a 19-year-old learning from a dorm room, Burgum said. North Dakota campuses should look for ways to expand their online footprint across the state and country.

“The real issue isn't that the oil price went down in North Dakota,” Burgum said during a meeting Friday morning with the Grand Forks Herald's editorial board. “The real issue is that higher education has fundamentally changed by some unstoppable forces including economic and cultural and technological that they have to respond to. Getting a little more money this time from the Legislature doesn't change that the fundamental operating environment for higher education has changed permanently.”

Hacker said the system has done a lot of transforming in recent years.

“We have been adaptive and transformative in our approach to educating North Dakota citizens,” Hacker said, pointing to work at schools like Bismarck State and Dickinson State. “We have a dual mission and polytechnic institution so that North Dakotans can receive training for in-demand jobs that businesses need.”

Also included in Burgum’s higher education package is $45 million for workforce development through matching grants to expand and establish new centers for career and technical education, similar to the Bismarck Career Academy.

Additionally, funding for the Higher Education Challenge Grant program also would increase 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. By requiring a 2-to-1 match in private donations, investing $20 million into the Challenge Grant program would bring a total of $60 million into the higher education system.

“We appreciate the governor’s recognition of the successes of the Challenge Grant program and his desire to enhance our current efforts to invest in career and technical academies,” Hacker said. “We will continue conversations to encourage collaboration amongst lawmakers, campuses and communities across the state.”