This Is The Part Where The Universities Threaten The Legislature

Remember during that federal government shut down not so long ago when President Barack Obama felt the only responsible way to respond was to block octogenarians from accessing open-air goverment monuments? It was a purely political move calculated to create a spectacle for the public performed in the most painful way possible.

Obama may well have taken that particular move out of the playbook of the North Dakota University System. Any time the Legislature starts talking about even slowing down their budget growth (the NDUS budget passed by the House which kicked off a hissy fit from the university presidents actually increases spending by 10 percent) they start threatening tuition hikes for students and cuts to academic programs:

UND Vice President for Finance and Operations Alice Brekke said several factors could influence how bad of a budget deficit the university could face should the bill pass in its current form.

“Without an increase in the per credit funding amount, to fund the state share and of course depending on the assumptions that are made and knowing we would need an increase in the student share, the gap for UND could be as high as $29 million,” she said.

If tuition is increased 3.8 percent, that deficit decreases to $17.2 million, Brekke said.

“At the end of the day we understand we must live within the resources available and will need to take actions accordingly,” Brekke said to the committee. “You have tough decisions to make.”

In other words, don’t bring your tough decisions to the universities, or we’ll make you pay.

But some lawmakers, at least, are asking the right questions. Given the rapid increase in university system spending, over relatively stagnant enrollment growth, why can’t these institutions make ends meet with what they have? Especially when the state is facing a big downward shift in revenue expectations?

The original funding formula accounts for pay increases, inflation and the rising cost of utilities while the amended bill doesn’t and committee Chairman Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said its hard for lawmakers to grasp why other money within the budget can’t just be used for those expenses.

“When the average legislator looks at the increases in general fund money going to some campuses, they wonder why that can’t cover some of those costs,” he said.

Lawmakers should be wondering that. This is my favorite graph to use in discussions about higher education in North Dakota, because I think it illustrates the problem perfectly. Spending on the universities has soared, up more than 150 percent over the last decade, while enrollment has grown just over 8 percent.

higheredenrollment

Why does it cost 150 percent more to educate just 8 percent more students? Especially when the students are footing the bill for ever-rising tuition costs:

higheredtuition

We really shouldn’t be debating the size of the spending increase for the universities so much as we should be demanding, with pitchforks and torches in hand, to know where the money they’re already getting is going.

Because it certainly isn’t to improve academics (scores are stagnant and graduation rates are abysmal) or keep the cost of attendance low (North Dakota students lead the nation in student loan debt).

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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