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Posted 7/18/17 (Tue)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Every time that North Dakota runs into budget problems, people start asking a question that has been bantered about for decades, “Does North Dakota need all of the colleges that it has?’
And with the state coming off a legislative session that found legislators scrambling to find funds for all of the programs they believe that North Dakotans need, it should probably come as no surprise that the subject of the number of colleges and universities has once again been raised.
But this time, it is North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum who is raising the question as is State Representative Rick Becker of Bismarck.
And maybe they are right.
Compared to some of our neighboring states, North Dakota’s 11 colleges and universities do seem to be an excessive number. And when you consider that some of these tax dollar-funded institutions of higher learning have fewer than 1,000 students, the question that seems to be asked is whether or not the state can afford to continue to operate its higher education system the way it has.
To be fair to Governor Burgum, he isn’t exactly calling for the closing of any of the state’s colleges or universities. What he wants to see is a reinvention of the state’s higher education system. But sometimes reinventing does mean making drastic changes.
How that reinvention would work, no doubt, is still very much in the talking stage. The governor can talk about reinventing our higher education system all he wants, but in the final analysis it will be the people of the state and the state’s Legislature that will make the final determination, especially if that means closing any of the state’s colleges or universities.
Several years ago, the people of the state voted to put several community colleges, such as in Williston, Devils Lake and Bottineau, into the higher education system. The argument for including those community colleges under the state’s umbrella was that it would ensure better education for the students. And it would take a portion of the funding for these colleges away from the local communities in which they resided. But, more importantly, it gave these colleges protection from seeing their funding significantly being reduced or cut entirely.
Both Burgum and Becker, as well as others who may be eyeing a revamping of the state’s colleges and universities, are no doubt well aware of how and why North Dakota came to have 11 institutions of higher learning.
Shutting down campuses, especially the smallest ones, would have a devastating impact on the communities in which they are located. While moving staff and students to another campus would be an option, what becomes of the myriad of buildings that would be mothballed would be a much bigger issue.
Does North Dakota need 11 colleges and universities when the number of students attending our colleges has plateaued or is declining? That is a good question. An equally good question is whether or not the state of North Dakota and its taxpayers will decide that maintaining all of these institutions is the best use of their limited financial resources.
The answers to those questions are not going to be coming soon. But considering the financial constraints that North Dakota is now in, they are questions that will need to be addressed in an upcoming legislative session.