Of course, it’s dangerous to write history a month after it happens – but this is not a history text. It’s a newspaper column, so let’s take the risk

A month after the Legislature adjourned, it seems clear that North Dakota’s higher education system is more stable, and therefore stronger, than it has been in several decades. Stability is not necessarily permanent; the system faces real risks. Legislative action is part of the reason for the stability but also part of the reason for the risk.

The 2020 election contributed mightily to respect for the system. A constitutional amendment that would have changed how the system is governed was overwhelmingly defeated statewide, reaffirming voter support for the Board of Higher Education, which dates from 1939.

In the wake of the vote, legislators approved a record budget for the system, which consists of 11 public colleges and universities, the two research universities in Grand Forks and Fargo, regional universities in Mayville, Valley County, Dickinson and Minot, and two-year colleges in Devils Lake, Bottineau, Williston, Bismarck and Wahpeton. For years, this collection of colleges has been regarded as an example of the “too-much mistake,” famously promulgated by Elwyn B. Robinson in his “History of North Dakota,” published almost 60 years ago but still the definitive text.

The session illustrated clearly, however, that the profusion of campuses is a strength. On the most basic level, it makes higher education accessible. On a political level, it has built a base of support not only in the 11 communities that have campuses, but throughout the state. This was clear in the election results. The “No” vote prevailed in every county.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

The diverse campuses allow for cooperation on several levels. This is a breakthrough prompted at least partly by a rapprochement between UND and NDSU, once bitter rivals at every level, but now cooperating entities everywhere except on athletic fields, where they are friendly rivals.

This is only an example; other instances of cooperation between institutions have cropped up. The “career academies” touted by Gov. Doug Burgum are an example. The State School of Science, based in Wahpeton, will provide courses in Fargo, for example, and Dakota State College in Bottineau will provide courses in Minot. There are developing partnerships between Dickinson State University and state colleges in Bismarck and Williston. A notable feature of these arrangements is “dual credit” course work, which will count both for high school graduation and for certificate or degree programs at the colleges.

UND’s budget, the largest in the 11-member system, nets more than $208 million on the funding formula alone, which is based on credit hours completed, an innovation developed over the last couple of legislative sessions. This includes nearly $9 million for salary increases. UND also got $12 million for construction projects.

Research dollars include $4 million for the space command initiative, more than $10 million for a health care workforce initiative, $10 million for the Energy and Environmental Research Center and $5 million for a state energy research center. These last two are critical to developing technology for capturing and storing carbon, essential to the goal of a carbon neutrality by the end of this decade. There is money for a statewide nursing education consortium ($1.35 million) and a contract for the state forensic examiner based on the UND campus ($1.6 million).

Challenge grants were approved that will match private donations (one state dollar for each donation of $2 up to $3.2 million, of which $1.7 is earmarked for the School of Medicine).

The fate of the challenge grants became something of a cliffhanger; the money was attached to a bill that penalized research funding that might come from an organization that funds abortions. Higher education officials worried about a chilling effect on recruitment and perhaps on giving to the colleges.

The system faces other challenges, among them a dwindling number of customers for higher education. Although the state’s population rose more last decade than at any time since The Great Dakota Boom of the late 1800s, there aren’t enough in-state students. North Dakota has benefitted from over-capacity in the past, drawing students from states whose campuses were crowded. Tuition reciprocity, especially with Minnesota, has helped grow enrollment here, as well, but Minnesota is keen to retain students.

Demographics aren’t the only challenges. Technology and cultural change count, too. Today’s students are impatient, which could mean less time spent on campuses. And they are mobile and could start on one campus and move on. Online learning allows study from anywhere, making some of the resources on campuses redundant.

The system appears to be adapting to meet these challenges, and the Legislature has responded.

I owe a nod to Rep. Mark Sanford of Grand Forks, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, who laid out the budget numbers to the Rotary Club last week.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.