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Column: Why do we talk so much about higher education in N.D.?

By Dean Bresciani, president, North Dakota State University

North Dakotans have long valued education, and increasingly, our state is realizing the unparalleled role of higher education in creating the success of North Dakota and its residents. Even a casual observer would note that an eleven-campus system of colleges and universities, in a state of our size and population, demonstrates a long-standing tradition of accessible, affordable higher education. So in many senses the observation is nothing new. 

But as a state on the cusp of reframing — and achieving — an economic future perhaps never before imagined much less possible, a rapidly growing number of business, civic and legislative leaders are coming to fully appreciate the investment opportunity and economic return being contributed by our North Dakota colleges and universities. Those benefits in stunning quantities are evidenced through our two nationally-ranked research universities. But those benefits scale, in ways just as important at their community levels and with a growing statewide impact, to our two-year and four-year undergraduate campuses.

It is worth noting that the personal and social benefits of higher education are irrefutably established by economists. There are few investments with more sure and dependable returns for either the individual or the society. And as suggested above, our state clearly has on a long-standing basis valued an educated populace.

That said, an odd and ironic national media trend has emerged in recent years suggesting that higher education “isn’t worth it” and that there is no “value added.” As a faculty member whose doctoral training is in finance and economics, and as a professional who has dedicated my life and career to higher education, that of course troubles me.

At the same time, I have to recognize that higher education is, to the outside observer, a complicated, complex and easily misunderstood aspect of our lives. As a result, it can be an irresistible target for those who might be sincere in their arguably misguided criticism of it, and those who might benefit from offering criticism whether it’s sincere or not.

For that reason, in coming months I plan to offer a series of op-ed submissions to our state’s leading news agencies, which I hope will shed some light on what higher education is and is not, why we as a state and nation support it like few other places in the world, and what benefits result from that support not just for our students but perhaps even more importantly our state and nation. I’ll attempt to respectfully recognize what critics say about that, and where they do and don’t hit the mark.

Speaking of critics, there will no doubt be some who challenge my effort and virtually anything I can offer as support for my position including external experts on the topic. But at the end of the day I believe that the impacts and contributions of higher education will for most readers be not only more understandable but substantially more appreciated.

As a teaser of sorts for what’s to come, let me offer this thought to people who suggest that higher education is an over-priced, inaccessible and unproductive drain of resources and time, with little defensible return on investment. In both percentage and sheer numbers, more Americans than ever before in the history of our country are accessing a higher education experience.

If we dispense with the notion that millions of Americans are so flush with resources and gullible as to be duped into a groundless and expensive belief in higher education, I think you’ll find that there are sound reasons we so strongly believe in the value of higher education. I think you’ll also come to better appreciate why it remains an inarguably commendable individual and societal economic investment (rather than cost), and why employers more than ever before use higher education as an entry standard for most careers whether they are in agriculture, trades, or professions, and that a surprisingly varied number of educational paths and disciplines can lead to success in those diverse fields.