According to the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment in higher education institutions continue to decline, dropping 5 percent this spring. The 5 percent represents 725,000 fewer students.

According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, the average number of students for each faculty member is 16. There isn’t an institution in North Dakota with that low of a student: faculty ratio.

If the figures have any credibility, the 725,000 student drop represents a large number of faculty salaries no longer flowing through local economies.

Small college salaries

Faculty salaries are disproportionately more important in the small college cities than in the business communities of the two research university cities.        

North Dakota has been using a variety of strategies to maintain or increase the number of students.

The major strategy has been encouraging out-of-state students to come to North Dakota. This has proved especially successful for the two top institutions, both of which have a majority of their students from out-of-state or out-of-country.

 While some legislators think this is extending charity at North Dakota taxpayer expense, keeping a full body of students accrues all sorts of benefits to the institutions and business communities.

ND hits skids

According to a report by Elissa Nadworny of National Public Radio, the downward enrollment trend started in 2012 nationally, the same year North Dakota hit the skids.

Up to this time, North Dakota has been able to finesse the decline without significant disruption of the flow of education in the institutions. But bad days are ahead.

The number of faculty members needed to teach 10,000 fewer students will be cut. If the decline continues nationally, the job market will soon be filled with PhDs released from educational institutions. There isn’t anything about North Dakota’s institutions that suggest the state will be exempt from the national trend.

Career academy impacts

We need to consider one caveat. The $70 million program for “career academies” created by the recent legislative session should draw new bodies into new post-high school institutions. 

That will fill a known gap in the state’s educational system and it will also attract present students from the universities who would rather be learning technical skills.  

With 11 institutions fighting for expansion or survival, every institution has tried to add disciplines to justify the present or larger faculties. In the upcoming belt-tightening, many of these majors will fail to attract enough students to justify high faculty salaries.

With too many institutions running too many programs for too few students, we can be assured that institutional competition will mark the declining days.

Online no solution

Every institution has a cheering section of alumni, fans and businessmen. In the war among the “North Dakota 11” the political pressure will be formidable when any allocation of resources is taking place at the state level.

While some hope that online courses will take the pressure off of downsizing, they have limitations. Some courses can be taught effectively on line; others cannot. Real life experiences of campus life will be lost. Some faculty can teach online; some cannot.  Some students want to get at least 75 miles out of town but they will “online” in their homes.

I must be transparent. I acquired all of my high school education by correspondence which isn’t too different from being chained to a computer. My social development suffered. I never did catch up.

Lloyd Omdahl is a political columnist and former North Dakota Lieutenant Governor.

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