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Editorial: Meet the challenge; fund the universities' Challenge Grants

It was a vast landscape of cuts, that budget that Gov. Doug Burgum presented in January. But across that windswept prairie, one "grain elevator" stood out.

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It was a vast landscape of cuts, that budget that Gov. Doug Burgum presented in January. But across that windswept prairie, one "grain elevator" stood out.

It was a program whose budget the governor actually wanted to increase.

That would be the university Challenge Grants, the program that leverages private dollars by promising a partial state match.

Alas, the Challenge Grants now look to be marked for demolition, Herald staff writer Andrew Haffner reported. The funding for the grants "was eliminated in House amendments to Senate Bill 2003, which sets the 2017-19 budget appropriations for the North Dakota University System."

Lawmakers should restore the Challenge Grant funding. That's because dollar-for-dollar, there simply is no other program that can do more good at lower cost for North Dakota's colleges and universities.

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Burgum has often said he'd like to reinvent state government, and legislative leaders agree. In our view, that's why he singled out the Challenge Grants for an increase: because the matching grants ratchet up the universities' quality but at minimal state expense.

In her January testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee, DeAnna Carlson Zink, the CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, explained how this works.

At the foundation, "we have seen time and time again the benefit of the state matching grant program," Zink told the committee.

"For example, we have a 92-year-old donor who has given three $50,000 gifts that qualified for state matches, tripling what he'd given the previous seven decades. Each time he has inquired about the availability of the grant.

"A former faculty member established an endowment with a gift of $100,000 in order to take advantage of the state match. And we had a donor who went from being willing to donate $10,000 to a scholarship initiative to eventually donating $800,000 when he learned about the state match."

There are many, many similar stories, Zink testified. Moreover, "once we have them as part of our donor family, they tend to continue their generosity - changing lives and creating opportunities for students well into the future."

And one other key point: "What you may not know is that 75 percent of those gifts came from out-of-state donors. This initiative extends beyond the borders of North Dakota, helping us tap into donors from across the country who see an immediate 50 percent return of their investment in UND as very appealing.

"I urge you to keep this valuable tool in our fundraising toolbox," Zink concluded. "Otherwise, I strongly believe we will be leaving philanthropic funds on the table."

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Zink's right. The Challenge Grant program has done enormous good for the universities at modest cost. It's smart governance and was identified as such by North Dakota's new business-minded governor. Lawmakers should let it keep drawing money into the state.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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