January 10, 2013


North Dakota, unlike almost every other state, is poised to make an unprecedented spending increase in its higher education system. The state’s governor has proposed a 14 percent increase — about $90 million — in the 11-campus system’s operating budget for the next biennium, as well as an additional $177 million in one-time capital expenditures. Politicians and education leaders hope an infusion of cash will help transform the system – which has struggled with inconsistent direction and leadership – into one of the country’s best.

The proposal stands out in higher education because most states are still cutting budgets in the wake of the economic downturn, which led to a 25 percent decline in per-student funding between 2006-07 and 2011-12, according to the College Board. At the same time, Republican lawmakers in other states have begun to question the value of state investments in higher education, with some calling for even greater austerity.

The situation in North Dakota couldn’t look any different. The state’s economy did not take any meaningful hit during the economic downturn that began in 2008, so the increases would come on top of decent budget years to start with. Recent developments in natural gas and oil drilling have dramatically transformed the economy of the western portion of the state, generating multibillion-dollar budget surpluses for a state of about 700,000 people. And Republican lawmakers are eager and excited to invest in higher education.

Okay, we know about the oil. But what about the rest?

Higher education leaders and politicians say that while the economic picture is unique to the state, the system would not be seeing an increase in funding had it not been for a concerted effort on the part of the board and system administration to prove that such an investment would be a good move on the part of lawmakers.

And they say their experience holds lessons for public institutions facing lawmakers who are increasingly skeptical about higher education funding. In particular, they said their efforts to provide a detailed road map, meet initial goals, hear and respond to private-sector interests, demonstrate efficient operations, and establish personal relationships with lawmakers all helped build confidence in the system after a period of prolonged skepticism.

The big secret seems to be transparency and accountability. Go figure.

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