The Time Is Right for a Debate About Closing Down Some of North Dakota’s Universities


Governor Doug Burgum is hinting at it.

He told the Grand Forks Herald back in May that, when it comes to the state’s public institutions, some North Dakotans “cling” too tightly to the “idea of location,” though he didn’t specifically say that any of the state’s universities should be closed.

Rep. Rick Becker, a rival of Burgum’s for the governor’s office and a potential U.S. Senate candidate next year, is also talking about it.

“Are we going to stick like Blockbuster did to the old model?” he asked, rhetorically, during a radio interview with me.

North Dakota has 11 institutions of higher education, eight of them mandated in the state constitution, with a total headcount enrollment of over 44,000 according to the most recent spring report.

Meanwhile, according to the Department of Public Instruction’s most recent graduation report, the state’s high schools turned out just over 7,600 senior graduates in the 2015-2016 school year.

Even if every one of those North Dakota high school students a) go on to an institution of higher education and b) pick an institution in the North Dakota University System we’re still at about 30,400 students cumulatively over four years.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Our state has far more capacity for higher education than it needs to educate its students.[/mks_pullquote]

Our state has far more capacity for higher education than it needs to educate its students.

So much so that our state depends heavily on out of state students to fill up campuses. In fact, in the spring 2017 enrollment report from the NDUS, we see that just over 51 percent of the students in the state’s university system are from North Dakota. Nearly 27 percent of them are from Minnesota thanks in no small part to a tuition reciprocity agreement.

But you have to wonder how much longer that agreement is going to stay in place what with enrollment slipping at the public institutions run by our eastern neighbors. “The decline in college-bound Minnesota teens has hit the Minnesota State system especially hard,” the Pioneer Press reported recently. “Several of its 37 colleges and universities are under close financial monitoring, largely because enrollment has fallen faster than expected.”

Will Minnesota be willing to facilitate their students coming to North Dakota universities when their own universities are facing financial problems for want of enrollment?

Defenders of the status quo will argue that bringing out of state students into  North Dakota helps address our state’s chronic labor shortages. That might be an adequate justification if those students stuck around our state after graduating, but the data shows they mostly don’t.

Some argue against closing campuses for the sake of economic development. After all, those university jobs not to mention the annual influx of students is strong stimulus for local economies.

“Maybe the fact that the constitution names the locations in the first place means economic development is part of the schools’ missions,” the Grand Forks Herald speculated in a recent editorial.

But we don’t have to speculate. The state constitution, in Article VIII, does lay out a mission statement for the state’s institutions of public education.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Nowhere in the document does it say that the state ought to operate these campuses for the sake of providing government jobs and economic stimulus.[/mks_pullquote]

“A high degree of intelligence, patriotism, integrity and morality on the part of every voter in a government by the people being necessary in order to insure the continuance of that government and the prosperity and happiness of the people, the legislative assembly shall make provision for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools which shall be open to all children of the state of North Dakota and free from sectarian control,” section one of that article reads.

“In all schools instruction shall be given as far as practicable in those branches of knowledge that tend to impress upon the mind the vital importance of truthfulness, temperance, purity, public spirit, and respect for honest labor of every kind,” section three reads.

“The legislative assembly shall take such other steps as may be necessary to prevent illiteracy, secure a reasonable degree of uniformity in course of study, and to promote industrial, scientific, and agricultural improvements,” section 4 reads.

Nowhere in the document does it say that the state ought to operate these campuses for the sake of providing government jobs and economic stimulus.

North Dakota’s university system is overbuilt. We have too many campuses. That’s a problem being exacerbated by a revolution in how people are educated. Change is coming and resisting it is futile. That’s what Blockbuster learned, to use Rep. Becker’s example.

Our state’s leaders need to be looking forward.