Sen. Holmberg upset over NDSU tuition hikeGRAND FORKS — “Disappointment is such a weak word,” said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, describing his feeling and those of other state lawmakers on hearing the North Dakota State University would increase tuition by 8.8 percent.
By: Tu-Uyen Tran, The Dickinson Press
GRAND FORKS — “Disappointment is such a weak word,” said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, describing his feeling and those of other state lawmakers on hearing the North Dakota State University would increase tuition by 8.8 percent.
The chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee said what really rubbed them the wrong way was the fact that they had thought the State Board of Higher Education could be trusted to keep tuition in check.
In the previous session, the Legislature had capped tuition increases to 4.4 percent a year at four-year institutions. The state board had then imposed its own cap of 3.5 percent, demonstrating a sense of restraint that Holmberg said lawmakers approved.
But in this session, when lawmakers removed the cap in recognition of that restraint and with the understanding that tuition wouldn’t go up more than 2.5 percent, the state board betrayed their trust, he said.
And NDSU had the “audacity” to blame the Legislature for not funding it enough when these problems came about because of the “excessive growth” under former President Joseph Chapman, he said.
Holmberg spoke to the Herald editorial board Wednesday.
“I’m sorry to hear Sen. Holmberg is disappointed because he has been a great friend to higher education,” said Jon Backes, until recently the president of the board.
But in defense of the board, he pointed out that there are 11 institutions in the North Dakota University System and only one of them raised tuition more than 2.5 percent.
“I don’t think there was a single member of the board who took lightly NDSU’s request to go beyond the 2.5 percent,” he said. “If the board had the ability to control all the aspects of it would’ve kept it at 2.5 percent. Affordability is very important to the board.”
Backes was one of five board members to vote for the 8.8 percent increase Monday. He said student leaders’ unanimous agreement to this burden was especially convincing to him.
Three board members, worried about lawmakers’ reaction, voted “no.”
It was never a secret that NDSU needed more money than the Legislature chose to allocate to keep tuition affordable, Backes said. That’s not to say lawmakers have underfunded higher education, he said, but if they had followed the governor’s proposal, NDSU would not have had to break through the 2.5 percent line.
Back in February, NDSU President Dean Bresciani had warned of “dire consequences” if the Legislature reduced affordability funding, essentially tuition subsidies, below levels recommended by the governor. “We would have to start making some very uncomfortable decisions about either what we would cut or what increases we’d have to pass along to students,” he said.
Monday, he blamed a history of unfair funding that brought NDSU to this point.
Holmberg said supporters of the 8.8 percent increase will throw out a lot of statistics and there are enough of them out there to make a case for anything. NDSU funding compared poorly to the University of North Dakota in this budget cycle even though it has a bigger enrollment, he said, because the $11 million data network center for the entire university system is being built at UND.
NDSU got a total of $121.9 million from lawmakers for the upcoming biennium, of which $39.1 million was for buildings and equipment. UND got $153.6 million, of which $47.5 million was for buildings and equipment. This doesn’t include UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, which got $46.8 million.
To really get to the bottom of the big tuition increase, Holmberg said, look beyond Bresciani to his predecessor, Joseph Chapman. It was Chapman who added new programs and used tuition waivers in an ambitious bid to jack up enrollment, Holmberg said. “In order to be No. 1, I believe they overextended themselves.”
The state board allowed this “unsustainable growth,” he said, but now the Legislature is being blamed.
Backes didn’t disagree. “I would say that certainly the financial issues at NDSU are a result of their unprecedented growth,” he said.
But the board wasn’t alone in that growth, he said. “Four years on board and I have not heard anyone saying ‘Hold it,” he said, including past lawmakers and governors. “That growth has almost unanimously been viewed as an economic driver in the state of North Dakota. If the board is to be faulted for not saying ‘Whoa,’ there wasn’t anyone else saying ‘Whoa’ either.”
Long term plans
The real issue now, he said, is the state has a long term funding formula and funding goals for higher education and, for a decade, it has not moved closer to those goals, despite “significant effort” by the Legislature.
“That tells me we have a long term finance plan that isn’t effective,” he said. “If it hasn’t been effective in a decade, we ought to look at something else.”
One piece of that formula had included comparisons with peer institutions around the country. Some lawmakers groused that the comparisons were unrealistic and the peers were always significantly higher than North Dakota institutions so that they, the lawmakers, felt as if they were being asked to match the funding institutions in much bigger states. Higher education officials have explained that the comparisons were simply used to keep pace with peer institutions, not necessarily match them.
No matter, lawmakers have banned such comparisons in the next session’s higher education budget process.
Backes said Holmberg is among lawmakers that are the most knowledgeable about higher education funding and he, Backes, hopes the senator would be engaged in the discussion about any new funding formula.
Tran is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.