What do you do when you’re a small-population state with far more universities than needs demand? You pack those universities by giving away tuition.
North Dakota has eleven public universities, which is a ridiculous number for a state with just over 700,000 citizens that graduates about 10,000 or so high school seniors every year. Put simply, our state has far more capacity for higher education than it needs.
But most of those campuses are mandated by the state constitution, and our university system isn’t run like a system but rather a loose confederation of completely independent institutions each of which wants to be a sort of Harvard on the prairie. To do that the institutions have to find a way to cram students onto campus.
The solution universities struck on is tuition waivers. The universities – particularly the big ones, the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State – would give away millions of dollars of tuition to lure students to campus and shore up enrollment numbers.
You can see the impact the give-aways had on enrollment in this graphic based on the most recent waivers and enrollment information from the NDUS. The correlation between enrollment and tuition waivers is startling:
Here you can see the dollars worth of tuition waived:
Before the 2011 some policymakers in the state outside of the university system – some lawmakers in particular – began to object to the rapid growth in waivers, and as you can see from the charts above the universities began to back off. But that had an impact on enrollment as well.
Will speaks volumes about the priorities of those leading our universities. The NDUS was created to serve the state and its students, not to pack campuses with students from all over the country with tuition waivers paid for by the taxpayers. Higher education appropriations have increased 159 percent since 2005, after all.
And to be clear, the universities have gotten really carried away with tuition waivers. A recent state audit report (see below) slammed the universities for having few controls or policies over tuition waivers. Among the findings? Apparently the University of North Dakota was, for several years, actually giving away tuition dollars for sports attendance.
This is from page 4 of the audit:
There aren’t a lot of details in the audit report, so I went to the University of North Dakota to find out more. So far, that’s been a bit like pulling teeth, but spokesman Peter Johnson has shared some details.
Earlier this week Johnson told me, in response to my inquiry, that “a few folks in Athletics got back to me and said there they believe there was an activity like this a few years ago, but not in recent years.”
Today Johnson emailed again and said, “The use of the waiver was one time. The promotion had been done for a few years but was funded via scholarship except the last year (2011).”
That tells us very little about what happened, such as how many students got waivers and what the dollar amounts were. And if the students were really getting tuition waivers just for attending an athletic event.
It’s clear that the universities have been using tuition waivers to inflate enrollment, but using them to inflate crowds at sports games? Good grief.
I’ll share more when I have more. Here’s the full audit report: