A timely reminder of the promise of public higher education has emerged in a most unlikely place: the plains of the far north.
From Florida to Arizona to California, dozens of cash-strapped states are making deep cuts to public universities. The rare exception is North Dakota. We've all seen the news about the flooding in Minot. Less well known is that this spring, North Dakota lawmakers approved an 8.2 percent budget increase for their university system for 2011-13, a boost that arrives on the heels of an increase of at least 18 percent in 2009-11. (Perhaps inspired by the state's snowfalls, North Dakota budgets persist for two years.)
Other states are cutting programs, increasing class sizes, and laying off faculty and staff members. North Dakota, by contrast, has dedicated itself to a fortune-changing investment in higher education. North Dakotans already devoted a higher percentage of their state dollars to universities than most other states. Now, they are awarding professors annual raises, setting aside more money for financial aid, expanding courses, creating job-training programs and funding centers of excellence to pair university research with private industry. Last winter, policymakers even floated a proposal to allow residents age 55 or older to attend university classes for free.
To be sure, North Dakota has the wherewithal to make this outsized investment. Its oil industry is booming. The state's unemployment rate is 3.3 percent, and it is reported to have a $1 billion surplus. Florida and most other states, mired in the aftermath of the financial crisis, are in no such enviable position.
Too, North Dakota has allowed only incremental tuition increases in recent years, contrasting with 15 percent annual increases in Florida and similarly large hikes elsewhere. Even so, North Dakota's four-year universities still exceed tuition and fees at Florida's four-year universities by a considerable margin. (The cost of attending the University of North Dakota, at $6,934 for North Dakota residents in the fall of 2010, was nearly $2,000 more than at the University of Florida, at $5,045 for Florida residents, according to the College Board.)
North Dakotans could have devoted more of their newfound oil wealth to road repairs and tax cuts. That they have also chosen to make sustained investments in higher education reflects an appreciation of the connection between excellent colleges and universities, economic growth and a high quality of life — a connection worth trumpeting in these pinched times elsewhere.
The state wants high-quality universities in part to entice newcomers while keeping more native young people from leaving. But economic development is the major focus of the North Dakota higher investment.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the North Dakota State College of Science has created new courses in applied technology and nanoscience. The University of North Dakota has enhanced programs in nursing, life sciences, engineering and environmental fields. Bismarck State College has bulked up programs that train students to work in fields related to energy — the state's leading economic driver.
Florida's 11 public universities and 28 Florida state colleges together have no shortage of their own inspired research efforts, relevant educational programs and job-training initiatives. To the contrary, Florida's higher education system dwarfs North Dakota's in every way, from enrollment to federally funded research to nationally ranked programs. Floridians deserve credit for investing their tax dollars over many decades to build such a system.
But even as Florida's leaders insist they are committed to economic development and job growth, the Sunshine State is headed in the opposite direction of North Dakota.
Florida lawmakers cut public funding for its universities by 17 percent between 2007 and 2010. This year, the University of Florida alone lost $26 million in its base budget, and millions more for financial aid for students. The sum of four years of state budget cuts now approaches $200 million at UF. And although the state has allowed universities to raise tuition, Florida's tuition remains among the lowest in the nation. At UF, tuition increases have replaced only about half of the university's losses from the state budget cuts.
No one disputes the connection between universities and economic development — indeed, President Barack Obama last week announced a $500 million initiative to pair universities and manufacturing companies to create jobs. And Florida's universities have been pivotal to the state's agriculture, aerospace, technology, biomedical and many other industries.
But the state cannot continue to whittle away at higher education without both shrinking our educated work force, undermining research and reducing the flow of new technologies and spinoff companies. That would be loss for a state that, like North Dakota, could become a national energy leader — but in renewable energy rather than fossil fuel. And it would be a shame for Florida, which unlike North Dakota is a prominent national bellwether.
The sour economy has forced Florida policymakers to make tough choices in recent years. Whether or not the future brings better times, state leaders should look one direction for putting their resources to best use for our state's economy and residents: north.
Win Phillips is the vice president for research at the University of Florida.