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Discussion on workforce needs: UJ, VCSU officials attend meeting of Higher Education Partnership

John M. Steiner / The Sun Andy Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, right, speaks to a gathering of higher education administrators and local and state government officials Wednesday at the University of Jamestown.

Both the costs and the value of higher education were part of the discussion about addressing North Dakota’s workforce issues at a Wednesday meeting of the Higher Education Partnership Wednesday at the University of Jamestown.

Higher education administrators from UJ as well as Valley City State University met with local and state government officials, hosted by Andy Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber.

“We are one of the two groups that directly benefits from what happens in higher education,” Peterson said. “The first group is students, obviously. … the second group that directly benefits from higher education is business.”

As such, Peterson is hosting meetings in various North Dakota regions to gather information and brainstorm possible solutions to workforce needs.

At Wednesday’s meeting in Jamestown, Peterson asked what people thought about North Dakota educating students from outside the state.

“It’s here to stay, it’s a very good thing. It enriches our community and it enriches our state, and the sooner we accept and embrace that the better off we’re going to be,” said Larry J. Robinson, executive director of university advancement at VCSU and District 24 state senator.

Robinson also said the students were needed to fill positions across the state, and that many of them stay in North Dakota afterward.

“We seem to be willing to use reciprocity as a way of luring a larger number of students from Minnesota … but in return we’re losing a much larger percentage of our students,” said Bob Badal, president of the University of Jamestown, a private institution.

He said that North Dakota is in some ways in a position of power, that Minnesota schools were facing budget cuts and that in some cases, “the only way they can afford to educate their students is to send them to North Dakota! I don’t understand why we’re not catching onto that.”

While Badal emphasized that he is not against reciprocity agreements that give students from adjacent states a better deal on higher education in North Dakota than they would otherwise get, he did say he thought “we’ve cut ourselves a very bad deal, currently.”

Scott Goplin, vice president of enrollment management at UJ, said that North Dakota being able to retain out-of-state students after graduation was a relatively recent phenomenon.

Keeping higher education affordable was another challenge the group discussed.

“When you talk about low tuition and affordability in the same breath, I don’t think it adds up,” Badal said, pointing out that students still have living expenses apart from tuition. “… our graduate is actually borrowing less money than the graduates at public institutions in some cases. What good is low tuition if it’s still not affordable, and tuition is only one piece of the puzzle.”

Jamestown Mayor Katie Andersen said it’s important that higher education institutions provide what the workforce needs.

“A lot of those jobs are skilled labor, and that seems to be the piece that’s missing in our workforce,” Andersen said.

Peterson spoke of the tension even within the business community between keeping taxes low and government efficient, and providing infrastructure and services.

“I think too much of the focus and too much of the oxygen (sucked) out of the room in the last few years has been on cost, on cost, on input, on input — we don’t talk a lot about output,” said Steve Shirley, VCSU president.

He cited benefits of higher education, including lower rates of incarceration, higher rates of volunteerism and higher rates in participating in democratic processes.

“We don’t talk enough about outcomes,” Shirley said. “We just talk a lot about the cost.”

People at the meeting spoke about what they’d do if they were “king for a day” and had the power to change anything they wished about higher education in North Dakota.

“It’s time that North Dakota put students first, not institutions,” Badal said, emphasizing the importance of finding ways to get students into college. “This state is notorious for funding institutions.”

Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453 or by email at