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Ryan Johnson, Published September 05 2012

Board approves merging fees with tuition

FARGO – North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education approved a plan Wednesday that will eventually do away with most student fees in the wake of a scathing state audit that found misspending of fee money at North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota.

The plan will be completed by the end of next year, but changes will start earlier under guidelines approved during the board’s regular meeting in Fargo.

By Dec. 31, the North Dakota University System will finish an analysis of non-mandatory fees that will be merged with tuition as part of a bigger plan to enact a new tuition rate structure by fall 2014.

The new tuition structure and rates will be developed and announced by next fall to give parents and students a full year before it goes into effect the following fall.

As part of the work leading up to those changes, the university system will review accumulated fee balances and set up a way of tracking revenues and expenditures from fees – both major items of concern in the performance audit released in late July. It found both UND and NDSU had misspent some of the millions they collect in student fees, in addition to a general lack of accountability and transparency for the revenue.

‘Foundation plan’

The changes to student fees are a part of Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s sweeping “three-tier access plan,” which would prompt drastic changes in admissions requirements and differentiate the state’s 11 public institutions if the board approves it later this fall.

Shirvani said the plan is necessary to “elevate the system to the next level,” the mandate he received when he started the new job on July 1. But it’s just the first step in that process, he said, and discussions over the coming years will also address improving faculty and staff on the campuses and ensuring classes are being offered at the right time to allow as many students as possible to graduate on time.

“Being an architect, I can’t help it but to look at the foundation,” he said. “This is essentially a foundation plan.”

Board members had several questions about the proposed changes, especially the draft plan’s goal to raise admission standards at all four-year universities, with the strictest requirements at NDSU and UND as the state’s major research universities.

If approved, the plan would give each freshman applicant a total score based on their high school grade point average, class rank and number of core classes completed, as well as their ACT score.

If they don’t meet the requirements to get into UND or NDSU, they may score well enough for acceptance to the state’s four comprehensive universities in Dickinson, Mayville, Minot and Williston. Or they could go to one of the five community colleges with the goal of eventually transferring to a research university.

Janice Hoffarth said the formula could cause problems in North Dakota, where many prospective students come from small high schools – and their class rank could look much worse than it really is.

Sydney Hull, the student representative from NDSU, said he crunched his own scores from high school and found out he would just miss the cutoff to get into the university under the plan’s requirements for fall 2015 – despite earning a 30 on his ACT, well above the national average score of about 21.

“I’m just a little bit concerned with how high we’re setting the research universities,” he said.

Shirvani said the proposal is still a draft, and the plan will be tweaked before a final vote to make sure it doesn’t set the bar unrealistically high. That could include modifying the formula and admissions score cutoffs, or an alternate process for prospective students who come from small schools.

He said the goal is to switch all four-year universities to the new formula next fall, but in a way that won’t cause any drastic changes to admissions at first. The required score to get in would slowly increase until it reached the strictest standards in the fall of 2015.

There will be other changes to the draft, such as running projections on the current batch of new freshmen on campuses this fall to see how many would have met the proposed new admissions requirements and figuring out where to set the required application scores.

Shirvani said it’s important for board members to show the public and the Legislature that “this time we really mean business” as they work to improve the state’s higher education system.

“If you do it too soft, it’s just going to be like we are kind of giving a lot of rhetoric and not a lot of action,” he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587