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Higher ed grant program funded after all

A public program to entice private donations to North Dakota higher education will be funded at a reduced level in the upcoming two-year budget after initially losing its state dollars.

The Higher Education Challenge Fund, a matching grant initiative established in the 2013 Legislative Assembly with a pool of $29 million, will enter the 2017-19 biennium with $2 million in funding for the 11 institutions in the North Dakota University System. The grant program was totally drained of its funding weeks before the end of the most recent legislative session, though lawmakers kept the program's legal infrastructure alive for a potential revival.

Tammy Dolan, NDUS chief financial officer, said each institution — with the exception of Dickinson State University — will have access to as much as $200,000 in grant funding over the two-year period. Schools are required to raise $2 in private money for every $1 provided by a match grant.

Matching dollars are intended to help schools build endowments to fund student scholarships and programs, as well as certain faculty positions.

Funding for the grant program has fallen because of wider reductions in state spending prompted by decreasing revenues in a commodity-heavy North Dakota economy. The first iteration of the challenge fund provided the higher education system with a total of $29 million in potential match dollars, with $10 million apiece directed to UND and North Dakota State University. Each of the remaining nine NDUS campuses were eligible to receive as much as $1 million in matching grants.

The total dollar pool for the fund shrank to $23.5 million in the 2015 Legislative Assembly and was reduced again to $4 million at the beginning of the most recent legislative session. That sum, which was approved by the Senate in their version of the appropriations bill for higher education, was eliminated by House amendments to the bill after a fiscal forecast indicated a continued slide in state revenues. Though the program itself would have been defunded in that form of the bill, the language ensuring its continued existence was left intact.

Gov. Doug Burgum has been a supporter of the challenge fund and suggested in his January budget recommendations a funding level of $10 million, though he said later he was "open to adjustments" given the state's revenue picture.

UND has made use of the challenge fund throughout the grant program's existence, most visibly directing grant money to the Collaborative Energy Complex, the new home of the UND College of Engineering and Mines. Construction of the $15.5 million complex was funded primarily by private donations, though the university was able to leverage $3.9 million in challenge grant dollars.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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