Lawmakers like ideas for higher edLast year, Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, pushed a bill to reduce the power of the North Dakota University System chancellor. Like many state lawmakers, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s education division was unhappy with the way the system was run.
By: By Jennifer Johnson, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
Last year, Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, pushed a bill to reduce the power of the North Dakota University System chancellor. Like many state lawmakers, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s education division was unhappy with the way the system was run.
On Wednesday, the day after new Chancellor Hamid Shirvani announced he wanted to make sweeping changes to the system, including toughening admission standards, Skarphol whistled a different tune.
“He has a refreshing attitude that seems to be extremely open and transparent,” Skarphol said of Shirvani. “If you ask him a question, he will answer it.”
The chancellor’s thought process is “extremely logical, very visionary,” Skarphol said, and the abbreviated version of the plan he’s seen so far is comprehensive enough, that if it’s to succeed, everyone needs to accept it as a whole.
“If you try segregating pieces you don’t like, I think you’re going to lose the effectiveness of what he’s trying to accomplish,” he said.
Other critics of the university system’s governance also greeted Shirvani’s proposal warmly, saying it was long overdue.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, a Democrat who represents an area around the UND campus where many students live, said he liked the tougher standards as a general principle.
“I think it’s good we’re challenging them,” he said. “We certainly want to make sure our students are prepared to go to college while still ensuring access for those who are prepared.”
Skarphol agreed. “Anyone who wants to be at a research institution should have to put in the effort to gain that entrance,” he said.
Shirvani’s sweeping reforms also focus on making the cost of higher education more transparent and financial aid more need-based.
Schneider graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2002, and noted the cost of a degree then was less than half of what it is now. National studies confirm that undergraduate students take on an average debt load of more than $20,000 for a four-year degree, he said.
“Improving affordability in the need-based financial-aid side is a step in the right direction, something I hope that legislators will praise as well,” he said.
Financial assistance has been well-funded in the past, said Skarphol.
“If the overall plan is what I’m anticipating it to be, we’ll have to see whether or not my colleagues are willing to increase it,” he said.
Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, believes “it’s about time” the university addressed making education more affordable and accountable.
Like Schneider, he represents the area around the UND campus.
“There’s been a lack of transparency in the higher education system, everything used to be bundled under tuition and fees,” Mock said. “Students would be told $3,000, $4,000 a semester and get billed for $1,000 or more than that.”
Universities have been criticized for limiting tuition hikes to avoid upsetting lawmakers, but raising fees instead.
The tougher admission standards Shirvani envisions would break the university system into three tiers in which research universities, such as UND and North Dakota State University would be the hardest to get in.
Regional universities, such as Mayville State University, would be easier. And community colleges, such as Lake Region State College, would accept all high school graduates and those with GED diplomas.
The standards are based on scores that include students’ ACT test scores, class rankings, GPA and core courses taken.
Skarphol’s bill last year also promoted such a three-tier system.
Shirvani would also shift to community colleges the remedial or developmental courses that help students who aren’t ready for universities to be ready. Research and regional universities now offer those courses.
The community colleges would teach dual-credit or advanced-placement classes instead of high schools.
Mock said he supports those changes.
“I feel as though too often, in order to be successful, people feel you must attend one of the research universities,” he said. “Many people have great careers at UND and NDSU, but there is a great place for regional colleges and community colleges.”
However, he said, a student who lives in Grand Forks and doesn’t have immediate access to remedial classes might have trouble because there isn’t a community college nearby.
“There are some areas where we need to see how this aligns with reality, how practical it is for implementation, but I think it’s a great conversation starter,” said Mock, who vowed to assess feedback from the public on the plan.
Long time coming
The Legislature has been “asking for this for a long time,” said Duaine Espegard, president of the State Board of Higher Education, which governs the university system.
“They don’t like the issues that are out there. They particularly didn’t like the Joe Chapman deal, they particularly didn’t like the Dickinson deal, which is a compliance (issue), they didn’t like the presidents’ houses deal,” he said Tuesday.
Espegard is referring to several hot-button issues that have antagonized lawmakers in recent years.
In 2009, North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman resigned after coming under fire for extravagant spending. The construction of his official residence was supposed to cost $900,000 — paid for mostly with donations — but ballooned to more than double that amount. He then spent more than $22,000 in donations to the university taking his family to President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
The president’s house at UND was also rapped for cost overruns. It was supposed to cost $904,000 but wound up costing $242,000 more.
Earlier this year, a state audit of Dickinson State University revealed it had improperly awarded degrees to hundreds of foreign students who didn’t meet the requirements.
Skarphol said he’s optimistic that higher education in the state is going to significantly change.
“It’s not only because of the chancellor, but I believe the current board configuration is extremely encouraging,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by their attitude and willingness to try to do the right thing, and make us proud of higher education in North Dakota again.”
Jennifer Johnson is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.