‘Everything is on the table’ as NDSU faces enrollment decline

It was bound to happen given the steady decline in college enrollment nationwide. Fewer students equates to fewer dollars coming in the door, forcing administrators to face inevitable budget cuts and the fallout that ensues.

The run-in with reality led the North Dakota State University to try to get ahead of the downward curve. But the announcement that “everything is on the table” as NDSU considers potential cuts and consolidations still came as something of a surprise, according to Forum News.

North Dakota State University will look to merge some of its academic colleges and departments, and eventually eliminate some majors and programs, to prepare for funding cuts. 

President David Cook made the announcement on Tuesday, Nov. 29, in an email to the campus community.

Cook said the university will aim to reduce its seven academic colleges down to four or five, and he wants feedback from people on campus on the best way to do it.

“It’s kind of the first step in a pretty tough journey over the next couple of months, but I think it’s going to set us up for a lot of success moving forward,” Cook told reporters during a news conference after the announcement.

You know it’s for real when the administration says the cuts could also include athletics. NDSU faces a loss of more than $10 million in state funding over the next two academic years due to a drain in students that began nearly a decade ago.

The declines are tied to a drop in NDSU student enrollment, which peaked in 2013-14, then began eroding and fell sharply in 2017-18, a drop that mirrors nationwide college enrollment trends.

Cook tasked Interim Provost David Bertolini with leading an effort to transform the institution in the face of those challenges.

That effort, known as NDSU Transform, includes four draft ideas developed by deans, based on reports that came out of a college and department merger committee.

“This will be disruptive,” Bertolini wrote in the email, but added that its outcome will strengthen the university.

NDSU isn’t the first school to confront the fact that higher education faces a turning point that’s been years in the making. Fewer high school graduates, endless tuition hikes and more opportunities to enter the job market without a four-year degree are finally forcing universities to refocus and compete. At NDSU that means rethinking programs to be more in line with skills in demand in the economy.

Low enrollment, high cost programs may be looked at initially, but decisions will be based primarily on the current workforce needs in the state.

“That’s going to be a critical driver in all of this,” Cook said.

While cuts are the focus now, he said NDSU will also consider new investment ideas because you “can’t just cut your way to get there.”

He said those ideas could include new academic programs to meet workforce needs.

No final decisions have been made regarding which academic programs will be on the chopping block. But clearly there will be significant changes coming soon to the NDSU campus.