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OUR OPINION: Now, grow endowments, not enrollment

As far back as 2004, North Dakota State University's rapid growth made it seem likely that for the first time in state history, NDSU would top UND in enrollment.

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As far back as 2004, North Dakota State University's rapid growth made it seem likely that for the first time in state history, NDSU would top UND in enrollment.

As the Herald's Aug. 27, 2004, editorial asked, "What then?

"Not much, as far as we can tell," the editorial declared.

"South Dakota State enrolls more students than the University of South Dakota. Michigan State draws more than the University of Michigan. But that hasn't hurt either USD or Michigan's prospects in the least. ...

"Let both schools focus on academic research and quality, not growth for growth's sake. That's what would best serve the region and state."


A few years later, as North Dakotans know, NDSU did surpass UND in enrollment. But times change, and pendulums swing; and today, UND is the enrollment leader once again.

So, now what?

"Now what" is that the 2004 editorial's conclusions still stand. Sure, it feels great to know that UND is No. 1, just as Fargo enjoyed NDSU's status on top of the enrollment heap.

But by far the most important development is this:

"North Dakotans in Fargo, Grand Forks and everywhere else are lucky to have two such strong and dynamic regional universities," as the 2004 editorial concluded.

"That's the bottom line, and 'who's on first' in enrollment isn't likely to change it."

The great news in both Fargo and Grand Forks is that both universities roughly are at capacity. That frees them to boost the "quality" sides of their operations, and in ways that will leave the universities, their region and the state much better off.

Put yourself in the shoes of UND or NDSU's president right now. You've got students in every available space on campus; you're making use of every classroom.


If you chose, you could push for new buildings and more staff in hopes of serving even more students.

But UND and NDSU already are taking flak for enrolling so many from out of state. Furthermore, the Legislature doesn't seem inclined to bless the idea of "growth for growth's sake."

Here's a better goal: Grow "quality."

In other words, grow the university's endowment, that all-important measure of a university's fiscal health.

Grow research -- and so contribute not only to the sum total of human knowledge, but also to North Dakota's reputation as an intellectual and exciting place to live.

Grow financial aid so that top students can graduate with little or no debt. And grow the caliber of athletics and other activities, adding to the university's national draw.

Quick: Which university enrolls more students -- Minnesota or Wisconsin? The only meaningful answer is, "Who cares?" Once a school is at capacity, there are more important measures of its effectiveness and importance. Those are the measures UND and NDSU should focus on, for as the 2004 editorial put it, "that's what would best serve the region and the state."

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald


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