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Gary Adkisson: 20th century solutions for 21st century problems

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The state of North Dakota has $1.2 billion to spend courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress in March of 2021.

The state originally received $3.2 billion but about $2 billion went to specific entities including cities and counties, leaving $1.2 billion for the state to allocate.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of plans being kicked around. The plans range from giving most or all of the money back to taxpayers via income tax relief to letting much of it sit in the bank.

The latter is foolish. With nearly historic low interest rates being paid, inflation would actually shrink the amount available.

Gov. Doug Burgum has a pretty solid plan that includes some tax relief, a lot of infrastructure, workforce and economic development projects, and emergency response and health care.

I think the plan is too heavy on traditional infrastructure (roads, bridges, water) given that Congress will soon pass an infrastructure package of more than $1 trillion.

Where the governor’s plan falls short, in my opinion, is in higher education.

While there is some money in the Burgum plan, there is not nearly enough given the havoc the pandemic has caused in our workforce, not the least of which is in the health care sector. Some of our state's colleges and universities have pivoted and are addressing workforce needs in real time.

There is no better example of that than Bismarck State College. Doug Jensen, who became president of the school about 18 months ago, has rolled out a polytechnic plan that builds on the school's vision to be a national model for innovative education and workforce training.

The school's energy programs are arguably the best in the world. The story of their selection by Saudi Arabia to export the program to that country is well known.

I find a story sticks best in the mind of readers when the story has a face, so let me put one on not just the success of the college's energy program, but the entire space BSC occupies in our state as the leading provider of education to older adults.

BSC’s average student isn’t fresh out of high school, but is generally a bit older. At most colleges, 60% of the students are 18-21. At BSC only 46% of the students fit in that category.

I met Brandon Baggenstoss about 18 months ago while he was pouring his time into earning a degree in renewable technology.

Brandon had returned to college as a 33-year-old who had originally gone to school at age 19 and earned an associate degree in science, but then worked in construction.

Brandon graduated last May with a 4.0 GPA and was immediately hired by Duke Energy and travels the nation working on wind farms, at a wage that is above the state per capita average of $61,000.

It turns out that nearly 100% of the students who graduate from that program have jobs right out of school and earn more than the state per capita average.

The Burgum plan recognizes the game-changing difference BSC is making in preparing this state's workforce in the newest, cutting-edge professions. But the Burgum plan does not adequately address the Mayville States in the system.

Mayville and Valley City are growing schools, having set enrollment records several semesters in a row. Meanwhile, institutions such as North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota continue to experience declining enrollment, down roughly 15% over the past decade.

While NDSU and UND have hundreds of millions in capital projects in the works, Mayville State hasn’t seen an entirely new building in half a century.

It is not my intention to pit one school against another but rather to point out the fact that we can’t equip a 21st century workforce with a 20th century funding approach to higher ed.

Gary Adkisson is publisher of The Bismarck Tribune.

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