Derailing the Freight Train

Aug 27th, 2007 @ 1:54 pm | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
North Dakota is at a significant point in history. The leaders of our major institutions, state agency heads, legislators, governor, and all who serve in leadership positions have an opportunity to accept or change the direction of a freight train that is heading quickly down the tracks, straight toward us.

I have written on this topic before. I come back to it because it is real, it keeps coming back to me from many sources and experiences, and we all need to let our leaders at every level know what we expect of them: the freight train or the new pathway? It takes courage and creativity to lead in new directions. Leaders who know they are doing what people want them to do have a stronger foundation for action.

I recently received yet another document that describes the freight train we are facing. Larry Isaak, former ND university system chancellor, is now president of the Midwest Higher Education Compact. He addressed the legislature's interim higher education committee on August 1, 2007. Isaak's primary conclusion is this:

"The major issue for North Dakota's continued economic success is to increase the proportion of its population with college degrees and to simultaneously grow its population/workforce."

This is the freight train. What will happen if we do not increase both the number of people here and the number with college degrees? Among the many consequences are these: We will be unable to sustain and grow the businesses we have in North Dakota, much less to attract new ones. A very large share of our population will be elderly, many on fixed incomes. All of them will be more dependent on health care services than younger ones, and there will be a severe shortage of qualified younger ones to take care of them.

A smaller share of the population will be paying taxes at the current rates, so either tax rates will have to soar or government services will face severe cuts. This would include services such as road repair, police, fire, employment assistance, court system – everything supported by tax revenues, affecting all of us on a daily basis. Tuition and fees could be so high due to lower state support that most people could not afford to attend.

Is this an exaggeration? I hope it will prove to be so. But look around you. All of these possibilities already exist in trend lines such as our aging and still declining population, stunted business growth due to inability to find qualified workers, shortage of health care professionals, and rising tuition rates. If we allow the trend lines to continue the freight train will hit, and it will not be a long time from now.

Isaak suggests we enhance high school preparation, grow college enrollment, improve graduation rates, match degree opportunities with jobs, make college affordable, and develop our quality of life. None of us can do this as individuals or even as interest groups. But if all of us actively and vocally support initiatives that will help in these directions, we have a chance to make an important difference.