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Jacobs: Higher-ed summit yields K-12 surprises

GRAND FORKS -- Monday of last week brought a perfect morning in Bismarck, the kind that makes you want to grab a pot of coffee and a newspaper and sit out on the deck.I went instead to the Brynhild Haugland Room in the state Capitol. The building...

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GRAND FORKS - Monday of last week brought a perfect morning in Bismarck, the kind that makes you want to grab a pot of coffee and a newspaper and sit out on the deck.
I went instead to the Brynhild Haugland Room in the state Capitol. The building itself is an architectural marvel, but the Haugland Room surely is one of the bleakest indoor spaces in all of North Dakota. I was there for something called “Envision 2030,” the state university system’s latest attempt to imagine itself.
With the venue behind us, here are some observations:
The event was well attended.
The governor was there. A U.S. senator was there. Members of the Board of Higher Education were there. So were the chancellor and a big part of the system office staff.
Presidents of the state colleges and universities were there, including two from UND, current and incoming, Ed Schafer and Mark Kennedy. So were at least three UND deans and several staff.
The chief justice came over from the Supreme Court building, and the chair of the Interim Committee on Higher Education, state Rep. Mark Sanford, drove down from Grand Forks.
The state superintendent of public instruction was there. Representatives of private industry and agriculture were there. So were half a dozen working reporters.
Here’s who wasn’t there:
Students.
Well, that’s not quite true. Board Chair Kathleen Neset, of Tioga, introduced two young women who are enrolled at Mayville State University. They stood in front of the room, facing the crowd, for 10 minutes or so, but they didn’t speak.
A 10-year old boy did speak, charmingly, of his ambition to be an aerospace engineer.
The room was laid out with long rows of tables, with chairs facing the same direction - a guaranteed conversation inhibitor. Mostly people were talked to rather than talking to one another.
Overall, the talks had a boastful and sometimes defensive edge. The state’s higher education system is accessible, affordable, meeting its goals, developing innovative programs, figuring out how to assess its effectiveness.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple was realistic. There won’t be money in the next state budget for new buildings, he said, “Just so you know.”
The senator, Heidi Heitkamp, was challenging. More diversity, more innovation, “bigger platforms,” she said.
Sanford, the committee chair, was blunt as he outlined new metrics the Legislature is looking to apply. Higher education doesn’t do well on some of them. For example, enrollment went up 8.8 percent in seven years, but university system employment jumped by 14 percent.
But a good part of the session was aspirational. The point was to look ahead 14 years to imagine how higher education might change in order to meet the needs of students and society in 2030.
The session did produce a couple of surprises.
One was the time frame. Chancellor Mark Hagerott said the undertaking won’t be completed for a year and a half. Another was the emphasis on data. “Monitoring hasn’t exactly been a religion,” Hagerott said, implying that it would be.
Throughout the day there was talk about measurements, such as student retention rates, four-year graduation rates and employment placement rates. There was discussion of how to measure these and other outcomes, and how to create incentives to improve them.
Consultants from the Lumina Foundation, which helped fund the day-long event, hinted strongly that further funding would depend on demonstrated progress - proven by data.
But it was existing data that produced the biggest surprise.
State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler admitted to what she called an “Honesty Gap” in public school education. North Dakota schools regularly list up to 85 percent of their students on honor rolls, but 35 percent of North Dakota high school graduates who enter the state’s colleges and universities need remediation.
In his talk, Dalrymple warned about “the wasted senior year.” He showed statistics indicating that high school seniors take significantly fewer credit hours than sophomores and juniors. They are gliding through their last year of college preparation.
During the day, there was talk about standards for Advanced Placement courses, too. And Heitkamp warned that college graduation statistics now indicate a surprising trend. “Boys are being left behind,” she said.
The afternoon session featured break-out groups to look at specific issues, including energy, agriculture, manufacturing, health care - the careers that will employ tomorrow’s graduates. There also were sessions on students - one called “The Whole Student,” one called “Tomorrow’s Student,” and one on diversity.
I went to the session on liberal arts and humanities, and heard that North Dakota public school students aren’t getting a solid background in history, the arts or government - the sorts of things that help develop thinkers and citizens.
So, a day-long seminar on higher education pointed instead to problems in the public schools.
This is a big challenge for North Dakota. Public schools make poor targets politically; while higher education is easy to criticize, as North Dakotans have lately shown.
Yet politics brings change, as developments in higher education prove. Maybe it’s time for some of that treatment in public schools, as well.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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