Port: Pandemic exposes bloat in higher education

Any budget increase will be treated as a cut because it wasn’t as large an increase as the universities requested.

Any actual cut will be treated as armageddon.

As a starting point for pandemic-era budgeting — the 2021 legislative session begins in January — Gov. Doug Burgum asked the universities to cut 10% from their budgets.

The folks in higher education say this will hurt their ability to provide academic services, which is what they always say when their budget is getting cut, or just not getting increased as much as they’d like.

“It more than likely would result in some academic programs (being eliminated), reductions in student services,” North Dakota University System Vice Chancellor Tammy Dolan told an interim legislative committee this week.

To be fair to our friends in the university system, who are generally good people despite their myopia on fiscal matters, they really have seen some steep cuts in recent budget cycles, but those reductions have been a climbdown from an absurd and utterly irresponsible explosion in appropriations during the revenue-rich heights of the oil boom.

From the 2009-11 to 2013-15 budget cycles, general fund appropriations to higher education ballooned from $593.4 to $910.6 million, a more than 53% increase.

Why? Good question.

There wasn’t an increase in enrollment. The state’s public institutions gained just 18 full-time-equivalent students during that time.

This graph, taken from a North Dakota Legislative Council report, shows the trend for general fund appropriations to the North Dakota University System as well as full-time-equivalent enrollment.

This graph, taken from a North Dakota Legislative Council report, shows the trend for general fund appropriations to the North Dakota University System as well as full-time-equivalent enrollment.

Lawmakers appropriated the money to higher education because, with the oil boom pumping tax dollars into their coffers, they had it to appropriate, and the universities, with their powerful lobbying networks, are always hungry for more.

Saying yes, in that situation, is easier than saying no.

Appropriations to the North Dakota University System have been cut, dramatically, since the end of the oil boom. They’re now back down to a $660.5 million appropriation in the current biennium.

That’s still an 11.3% increase from 2009 to 2011 even though enrollment has been declining. It’s down 4.4% since 2009-11.

Dolan told lawmakers this week that the NDUS has cut 900 jobs since 2016, due to budget reductions. That they had so much blubber to cut is another sign of just how out of control spending has been on higher education.

But has all the fat been trimmed? Are we actually reaching the point where cuts may meaningfully impact the ability of the universities to serve the students?

The universities say yes, but we can’t trust them, because they cry the blues even when their budgets are going up.

NDUS enrollment is declining. The pandemic is hastening a pre-existing trend away from the traditional higher education model. What we need now is a conversation about reform, not another tiresome debate over budgets.

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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at [email protected]

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