Are Students Really The Number One Priority For North Dakota Universities?


University of North Dakota student leader Tanner Franklin came out swinging yesterday, accusing his university of trying to hide tuition hikes from the Legislature and calling for new leadership at his institution. Today the North Dakota University system is in damage control mode, with State Board of Higher Education President Terry Hjelmstad rushing into the fray with a letter to the editor defending UND.

You can read and evaluate his arguments for yourself, but this statement at the end caught my eye:

“Students will always be our No. 1 priority, and providing quality education at a regionally competitive price is what our goals intend to do.”

Does anyone really believe that students are the priority in the NDUS?

North Dakota taxpayers have lavished money on the universities. General Fund appropriations to the universities has increased 133 percent over the last four bienniums. That’s an average biennial increase of 24 percent. That despite enrollment that has largely remained static across the university system during that time (it has actually decreased at UND).

The universities are now costing North Dakota taxpayers a half billion more to educate about 3,000 more students.


As a result of this windfall in cash, the universities have been on a spending binge. Glittering new buildings. Lavish pay and perks for administrators (chauffeur, anyone?). An army of vice presidents to help administrate every campus. But very little seems to have filtered its way into the cost of educating students.

For instance, let’s look at university system hiring. The number of non-instructional employees at the universities as grown substantially, by about 40 percent over the last decade through the end of the last biennium. The number of instructional positions, though, has increased only 3.5 percent.



This would seem to imply that the taxpayers are spending a lot of money on hiring people who aren’t educating the kids.

But maybe this windfall of taxpayer appropriations has been used to defray the cost of attending the state’s universities? Well, not so much.

At the state’s “research institutions” (UND and NDSU) resident tuition rate has increased more than 48 percent. Resident tuition has increased more than 45 percent at the state’s four-year institutions, and 30 percent at the state’s two-year institutions:


But surely, given the massive increases in revenue from tuition and taxpayer appropriations, we’ve improved the academic outcomes at the universities, right? Because of all this cash, the universities have to be doing a better job of serving the students, right?

Well, no not really. According to numbers from the Chronicle of Higher Education, completion rates at North Dakota’s four year and two year institutions are about as ugly as they’ve ever been.

At the four year public institutions the four year, on-time graduation rate is about 23.3 percent. It rises to about 50.3 percent for students getting a four year degree after six years, which is a great deal for universities which get two more years of tuition and fees but a terrible deal for students who have to pay for two more years and see the beginning of their careers delayed.

The two year schools aren’t any better. They have about 25.9 completions for every 100 students.

All of these numbers are remained largely static for the last decade.

So back to Hjelmstad. He’d like us to believe that North Dakota’s universities care about the students. They’re putting students first. But after a decade of massive budget increases, and aggressive tuition hikes, where is the evidence that students are coming first before campus expansion and administrative bloat?

It doesn’t seem to be in evidence.