Assessing the State Situation

Jul 18th, 2005 @ 8:28 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
Every year, the State Board of Higher Education has a two-day retreat with the Chancellor, his staff, and the campus presidents. Last week, we met in Bismarck to review the past year and plan for the next. The main topics were finances and the Roundtable.

What is the Roundtable? It is a voluntary association of legislators, leaders in the executive branch of state government, leaders in private business and industry, and higher education leaders that has met periodically since 1999. The group produced a major report in 2000 that is still vital. The report identified six cornerstones on which to build the future or higher education: education excellence, economic development, flexible and responsive system, accountability, funding and rewards, and sustaining the vision. The report also identified roles for each of the key groups to make the desired future come true.

At the retreat, we heard from a panel of legislative leaders and a panel of private sector leaders. They gave us their ideas about what higher education has been doing well and how we need to improve. The legislators urged higher education to be more accountable. The businessmen promoted more flexibility and responsiveness. So it seems the cornerstones are still relevant, five years after they evolved.

Nevertheless, both panels gave higher education a great deal of credit for progress in the last five years. In fact, there was considerable support for the idea of putting the Roundtable into state law so that it would continue to work even after current key individuals have moved on.

As for finances, there were two major controversies in the last legislative session. One dealt with funding equity among campuses. The other dealt with the formula that is used to calculate equity. Those two items are likely to consume a great deal of thought and action statewide during the coming year. There are no easy answers in an era when no campus has sufficient state funding, funding is not likely to increase, and the youth population is declining.

A related report arrived from Colorado last week, forecasting state budgets to the year 2013. Its "sad conclusion is that most states will face continuing problems in financing current services and will not have sufficient resources to support real increases in spending." It goes on to say that citizens will either have to scale back their appetites for government services or support tax increases.

The study predicts that on average states will have a 5.7 percent shortfall by 2013. The good news is that North Dakota's projected shortfall is 3.3 percent – the tenth best in the country.

The bad news for the university system - and for students and parents - is that in 2013 North Dakota is projected to spend 29.7 percent more for all programs (compared to 41.1 percent for all states), but not a penny of that will go to higher education (compared to an increase of 34.4 percent for higher education in other states). The primary driving force for rising costs in all states is Medicaid.

With no relief in sight, it is essential for all parties to face and deal with the issues, as the university system is doing.

The report cited is "State Fiscal Outlooks from 2005 to 2013: Implications for Higher Education," NCHEMS News, June 2005.