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Port: What did the university system do with the money?

By Staff | Mar 17, 2017

“We got a truckload of money for the past several biennia with the same number of students so we should have made huge gains with the ones we had,” a campus insider told me this week.

“We have nothing to show for it but some new buildings.”

The topic of conversation was the political fight over cuts to higher education budgets. The universities have been hitting the panic button.

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy and North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani have been in the media recently calling for tuition hikes. Campus academics have been carpetbombing the state’s opinion pages with letters decrying layoffs and spending reductions. UND professor Thomasine Heitkamp – sister to U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp – even called on lawmakers to tap the state’s Legacy Fund to prop up higher ed budgets.

But we are in need of some context.

During the boom when oil activity was driving a revenue tidal wave into state coffers the universities saw immense increases in their appropriations.


According to data from Legislative Council, general fund appropriations to the universities increased more than 77 percent over the last decade, including a 38.4 percent increase in the 2013-2015 biennium alone (that was the peak of the oil boom).

But full-time equivalent enrollment during those biennia increased less than 7 percent.

Those are the figures to which my friend in higher education was referring. During the boom years our state’s political leadership ladled money into the universities.

What did we get for it?

Just buildings, it seems. There has been no meaningful change in, say, degree completion rates. No indication that our students are getting more value from their degrees. Just larger campuses and bigger payrolls.

Or maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe there is some return on investment I’m not aware of.

Some hidden benefit to taxpayers increasing general fund appropriations nearly 70 percent per FTE student.

It would be nice if the universities cut back on some whining and caterwauling and got down to explaining what they did with the windfall they’ve received over the last decade.

To be fair, the university budgets weren’t the only areas of appropriation bloated by our spend-happy lawmakers in recent years. From the 2007-2009 biennium through the peak of the oil boom in 2013-2015 general fund appropriations increased more than 167 percent. Even account for a spending reduction in the current biennium, lawmakers have averaged a more than 25 percent per-biennium increase in general fund appropriations for the last decade.

The budget pain we’re seeing now is directly attributable to that profligacy. Lawmakers built massive spending increases on oil boom revenues which were never going to be the new normal.

Along the way they told us fibs about how much of it was “one-time spending,” but that clearly wasn’t the case. If it were the state wouldn’t be in the financial shape it is today.

Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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