“It’s Cheaper to Help a Student Stay in School Than to Recruit a New One.”


Many graduating North Dakota State University students displayed messages on their caps like this one during ceremonies at the fargodome on Saturday, May 13, 2017. David Samson / The Forum

The headline comes from this New York Times article from last week about some of the new realities universities are facing.

Realities which threaten their existence.

The article’s author describes universities desperately trying to maintain enrollment by offering steep tuition discounts. Sound familiar? North Dakota’s public universities, NDSU in particular, have drawn criticism for years for the tens of millions of dollars in tuition they waive annually.

The article talks about universities deferring maintenance to existing buildings to save money even as they continue building new structures in an attempt to lure in students. Again, that’s happening here in North Dakota. Our state’s universities have hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, and yet a big chunk of the increase in spending on the university system in recent budget cycles has been funds for new buildings.

The article focuses on how Georgia is handling these issues. They’re consolidating their system, and focusing on serving the students they do have better. “The system has shrunk from 35 campuses to 28, helping compensate for a nearly 20 percent cut in state funding from 2008 to 2016 and an enrollment that this spring rose only two-tenths of a percent over last year’s spring semester,” the Times reports.

“The universities are putting some of the resulting $24 million in savings into efforts to reduce the number of dropouts,” the report continues. The idea is to bolster enrollment at Georgia’s public universities by keeping kids in school.

That could work here in North Dakota as well.

At our state’s two largest universities – the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State – the four-year, on-time completion rate is about 25 percent. The six year completion rate is about 50 percent.

Those are ugly numbers, and they’re even worse at the state’s smaller schools.

Back in February I wrote that the North Dakota University System has more to gain from boosting these completion rates than it does from attracting more students on to campus. I think the data here in North Dakota, not to mention national trends in higher education, bear this out.

Simply packing more students onto our state’s campuses is bad public policy. It might be great in the short term for the universities, not to mention great for the local businesses those students will patronize, but it’s an unsustainable model long term.

Here in North Dakota our universities are overbuilt. We have too many campuses to begin with, and those campuses have been built up to serve a quantity-over-quality approach to admissions.

We need consolidation. We need efficiency.

Circumstances are going to demand those things, whether the political will exists to implement them or not.