The North Dakota University System Is Failing To Meet North Dakota's Workforce Needs


Originally this post stated that NDSCS president John Richman was at the Chamber event in Fargo based on his comments in the Fargo Forum piece linked below. I’m told now he didn’t attend. The post has been corrected to reflect that.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott, on the job for just a few weeks, has already toured the state listening to lawmakers and other elected officials. Now he’s touring the state, at the invitation of the Chamber of Commerce, to listen to the business community.

At a meeting in Fargo yesterday Hagerott was told by business leaders that the university system isn’t meeting North Dakota’s workforce needs.

The excuse from higher education leaders is that the Legislature is to blame.

“We will continue to do as much education and training of the workforce in that region as we can possibly do,” North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman told the Fargo Forum of yesterday’s event, which I’m told he didn’t attend. “However, without additional funding, those expanded programming efforts won’t happen as quickly or as readily.”

Richman’s beef is the failure of the Legislature to fund a campus expansion Richman wants for his institution. Per the state constitution the NDSCS is based in Wahpeton, but it has a satellite campus in Fargo which is already home to the state’s largest institution of higher education in North Dakota State University.

Richman wanted some $65 million to expand that campus but lawmakers, in a session where they communicated with their actions a large degree of mistrust in leaders like Richman, shot the idea down.

“How do we get that focus on tech ed? How do we get the legislative branch to support that?” Perry Lubbers, vice president of manufacturing operations at Trail King Industries in West Fargo, asked during the event.

Those are good questions, but we might start with asking the university system why, given the lavish investment of taxpayer dollars they’ve received in recent years on top of strong growth in tuition revenue, they aren’t already meeting our workforce needs?

Here’s some truth: Taxpayer appropriations to the university system increased more than 133 percent from the 2005-2007 biennium through the 2013-2015 biennium which just ended on June 30. During that time full time equivalent enrollment increased less than 8 percent.


This is a truly massive investment in higher education. In fact, since 2008 North Dakota has led the entire nation spending increases on higher education. Second place was Wyoming, and it wasn’t even close.

Yet, what have North Dakotans gotten for all that investment? As demonstrated by the Forum article linked above the university system clearly isn’t meeting the state’s workforce needs. Enrollment growth, averaging just 1.9 percent growth per school year, certainly hasn’t justified the increased spending which has increased an average of 24 percent per biennium.

The spending hasn’t eased tuition hikes. Resident tuition rates during that same time window have increased 30 percent for the public two-year institutions, 45.5 percent for the state’s four-year institutions, and over 48 percent for the state’s “research institutions” (NDSU and UND):



Nor have academic outcomes improved. 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.

The one area where the university system seems to be excelling is in highing bureaucrats. According to a recent report by the National Education Association, North Dakota leads the nation in employing higher education personnel who aren’t engaged in teaching.

So, in summary, what we have is exploding spending on higher education that’s not making tuition cheaper for students, that’s not improving academic outcomes, but that is fueling a good deal of administrative bloat. And in that context, higher education leaders blame their inability to meet the state’s workforce needs on a lack of funding from the Legislature.

That’s some high-octane hypocrisy.

I agree with the Fargo business community when they say the university system hasn’t been meeting the state’s workforce needs, and I agree with the calls for a renewed focus on technical degrees. Those are accurate assessments.

But the university system cannot be allowed to get away with blaming the Legislature because they prioritized serving themselves over serving the state and its students.