Declining enrollment hits home with “daunting” NDSU budget cuts

The steady decline in college enrollment continues to chip away at institutions of higher education across the country. After years of trimming expenses here and there due to falling admissions, the North Dakota State University has finally hit the point of no return. NDSU officials warn that the decline in revenue means there will be drastic changes in programs and possibly the school’s direction, according to Forum News.

North Dakota State University is facing “daunting” funding cuts totaling $10.5 million resulting from a decline in student credit hours that form the base of the state funding it receives.

The reduction, which amounts to a 5.48% decrease in NDSU’s base funding through 2023-25, is prompting a major evaluation of the university’s programs that will precipitate a transformation in what the university teaches and how it operates, NDSU President David Cook said.

The looming budget cuts were announced in a campus email sent the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 25, by Cook, who warned of difficulties ahead and said he cannot promise the “core university mission” will emerge unscathed. In his email, he called the budget cuts “daunting.”

The shift by high school seniors from pursuing a college degree to technical training and other options in the job market dates back about a decade. But it’s taken years for college administrators to come to grips with the reality that comes with the resulting drop in state funding.

The declining funding will come in two rounds, a $2.9 million reduction for the current fiscal year ending in June 2023, followed by a cut of $7.6 million for the 2023-25 budget biennium, a decrease of 5.48%.

“This is the landscape, and we have real challenges,” Cook told The Forum. “We’re going to have to rightsize, reorganize — just everything is on the table. That’s hard to do. But we can’t keep doing things the same way.”

Given the scale of the funding decline, cuts will be inevitable, Cook warned, but he could not say what is on the chopping block because the reorganization plan remains a work in progress.

“There’s no more change in the couch,” he said. “There’s no more money lying around.”

The new normal and changing post-secondary landscape also confronts other campuses in the state system. There’s an urgency that goes beyond belt-tightening to a long overdue revamping of services retooled to meet high school graduates where they’re at.

The magnitude of the budget challenge varies between campuses, ranging from a decline for 2023-25 of just over 1% at the University of North Dakota to 12.1% at the North Dakota State College of Science.

The reason UND faces a 1% decline compared to NDSU’s 5.48% drop could be due in part to UND’s strategic decision to significantly increase its online course offerings, something NDSU has been less aggressive about, Cook said.

To succeed, NDSU must find the right mix of online and hybrid degrees and form close partnerships with business and industry leaders to offer programs that are in high demand for the changing workforce, Cook said.

In short, “everything is on the table” at NDSU. High school graduates have acted with their feet and pocketbooks, forcing colleges and universities to get creative and respond to the market while there’s still time.