North Dakota's University System Could Learn Something From Purdue And Mitch Daniels


Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is taking over as the president at Purdue University, and he’s already making some waves. Via Inside Higher Ed, Daniels sent an open letter to university employees criticizing the status quo in higher education.

Here’s a list of quotes from Daniels’ letter. See how many of them apply, perfectly, to the problems in North Dakota’s university system as well:

“College costs too much and delivers too little. Students are leaving, when they graduate at all, with loads of debt but without evidence that they grew much in either knowledge or critical thinking.”

“Administrative costs, splurging on ‘resort’ amenities, and an obsession with expensive capital projects have run up the cost to students without enhancing the value of the education they receive.”

“Rigor has weakened. Grade inflation has drained the meaning from grade point averages….”

“The mission of undergraduate instruction is increasingly subordinated to research and to work with graduate students.”

“Too many professors are spending too much time ‘writing papers for each other,’ researching abstruse topics of no real utility and no real incremental contribution to human knowledge or understanding.”

“Diversity is prized except in the most important realm of all, diversity of thought. The academies that, through the unique system of tenure, once enshrined freedom of opinion and inquiry now frequently are home to the narrowest sort of closed-mindedness and the worst repression of dissident ideas.”

“Athletics, particularly in NCAA Division I, is out of control both financially and as a priority of university attention.”

Here’s some facts about North Dakota’s university system.

Graduation rates are abysmal. At the state’s two largest universities, UND and NDSU, slightly more than 1/5th of students graduate after four years. Less than half graduate with four-year degrees after six years. Nor is this a problem just at the four-year institutions. At Williston State College, the three-year graduation rate for two-year degrees is averaging at just 35%.

North Dakota’s university system also suffers from an “obsession with expensive capital projects.” This chart shows year-over-year increases in total higher education funding (including one-time spending on capitol projects) contrasted with enrollment. As you can see, if Governor Jack Dalrymple’s budget recommendations are carried through, we’ll have had a 150% increase in spending since the 2003 – 2005 biennium over a less than 9% increase in enrollment:


Administration, too, has become bloated. System wide, the NDUS has seen a 40% increase in non-instructional hiring over just a 3.54% increase in instructional positions:

graph (1)

Athletics, too, are out of control. According to figures from the NCAA, each student at the University of North Dakota subsidizes the school’s athletic programs to the tune of $317 per student. At North Dakota State the figure is $427.

All told, North Dakota many many of the same problems Daniels is seeing at Purdue. North Dakota may have skipped the national housing bubble, but we’re not skipping the higher education bubble.

The status quo is great for university officials and faculty, who have been raking it in, but not great for taxpayers or students who are carrying much heavier burdens and getting less for what they paid.