The Brick: Enrollment equation is getting worse

When Professor Elwyn Robinson wrote his comprehensive history of North Dakota in the 1950s, he coined a phrase that stuck. He called it the “too much mistake” because Dakotans in the 1880s had designed a state infrastructure that was greater than we would ever need.

The political creation and location of too many colleges and universities became the classic example for proving his point. It seems that most rational people in the state now agree that we have too much higher education. However, there is strong resistance to closing any of the institutions. It has been on the ballot in the last decade and lost at the polls.

State Cuts Support

To relieve the financial burden of too many institutions, the state legislature has been decreasing the amount of public money going to universities, thereby shifting the costs to students through higher tuition.

But with loose credit, students have been able to mortgage their futures to pay the increasing tuition and still have enough money to enjoy wining and dining, driving nice cars and living off-campus.

Meanwhile, the brick: enrollment equation is getting worse. We have overbuilt every campus; partly because the more concrete you pour into colleges the less likely they are to go on the chopping block. We have already invested too much money in campuses to let go.

Not Enough H.S. Grads

A couple of years ago, NDSU Economics Professor Beth Ingram studied demographics and concluded that North Dakota high schools were no longer producing enough graduates to maintain the enrollment of the universities. An influx of out-of-state students has hidden this truth. Over half of the students at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University are from out-of-state.

So even before the pandemic North Dakota universities were beginning to decline, with a prognosis of declining at least another 20 to 25 per cent in the next 20 years.

This decline may accelerate as a consequence of the pandemic which has been forcing the universities to be more creative in the education system. Online courses have become a serious threat to the traditional classroom.

More Online Courses

It is my guess that most professors prefer the presence of real bodies in their classes. But some of them may have tried online and liked it. The students too may prefer a large interspersion of online teaching in the curriculum. And the students have clout.

The UND Political Science department used to offer an 8 a.m. section of National Government but had to close it because students wouldn’t enroll in the early course. In other words, student behavior was impacting the curriculum and will again in the future. They may demand more online courses.

The point here is that the pandemic will be changing higher education permanently by faculty and students and on-campus enrollment will be going down. Our brick:student ratio will become even worse.

Student: Teacher Ratio Worsens

With all of this investment in buildings on every campus it will be difficult to adapt to fewer students by closing institutions. And to keep their enrollment up, schools will end up with student:teacher ratios that will become intolerable for the extra-large curricula every institution has adopted to protect itself from closure.

Fewer students in residence will mean fewer customers for car dealers, restaurants, housing and pubs so the streets of college towns will be less green. Main Street has a big stake in changes in higher education.

This situation calls for long term planning which is difficult in a democratic system that keeps turning over decision makers every two and four years. New governors and legislatures always come with different ideas about solving problems. Nevertheless, we need to work with what we’ve got.

Anyway, Elwyn was right. Again.


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