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Ryan Johnson, Published May 09 2013

North Dakota students could face tuition hikes next fall

GRAND FORKS – Students at North Dakota’s 11 public colleges and universities could face tuition increases as high as 6.6 percent next fall, even after an “unprecedented” increase in state funding for the university system approved by legislators in the recently completed session.

State Board of Higher Education members voted 7-1 Thursday to approve a plan that establishes tuition increase maximums at each campus ranging from 2.13 percent at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake to 6.63 percent at Williston State College. The cap was set at 4.9 percent at the University of North Dakota and 4.23 percent at North Dakota State University.

The vote doesn’t mean tuition increases have been set or that all schools will approve an increase up to their cap. Final decisions will be made on each campus in the coming days by the presidents and other campus leaders.

The plan was passed Thursday afternoon following more than an hour of discussion that included comments from campus presidents, representatives of student governments and board members. Nearly everyone who spoke supported the guidelines that were approved.

Grant Shaft, the board’s previous president and only member to vote no, warned that they were facing a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The issue came up less than a week after the Legislature boosted state funding for higher education by 11.9 percent, committing a total of nearly $900 million of ongoing and one-time funding to the university system for the next two years.

Despite the large funding increase, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Laura Glatt told the board that the final legislation approved by lawmakers changed the funding plan supported by all 11 campus presidents earlier this spring, which established a state share and a student share to cover inflationary expenses such as salary increases and rising health insurance premiums.

When the session ended, most campuses had won their one-time infusion of equalization funding to get on the same financial footing. But lawmakers reduced how much state funding would be provided to cover inflationary costs, leaving the university system and campuses with a decision about how to fill the gap.

Glatt presented six options to deal with the shortfall, which she estimated would be $13.7 million at UND in the next academic year and $10.8 million at NDSU. The options included no tuition increases, and smaller increases broken down by tiers, such as 1 percent at two-year campuses and 2 percent at the four-year campuses.

Shaft said it was a “lose-lose” issue from a political perspective because it meant having to ask students to shoulder large increases or forcing the campuses to look for cost savings by cutting programs or staff, or limiting salary increases.

Several presidents said they would support the option board members approved, which estimated the tuition increase that would be needed for each campus to make up the entire shortfall and break even – without using the new equalization funding to cover the gap.

North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman said the plan would give each campus flexibility to make the decision and create a sense of “shared ownership” in the process by allowing them to set the final increase.

UND President Robert Kelley agreed, and said it was important to not commit the institutions to freezing tuition – or sticking with a low increase – despite recent requests from student government leaders that they limit or not approve any tuition hike.

“I don’t think it takes rocket science to see that on an annual basis if we were held to a zero percentage, we’re looking at a $13 million shortfall,” Kelley said.

NDSU President Dean Bresciani also supported the plan. He said it was important to fund the shortfall rather than use the hard-fought equalization money approved for most campuses that officials had been trying to win for decades.

“We have one last piece to put into that puzzle and it will be done,” he said.

Chancellor Hamid Shirvani said going with the approved option, which allows for the highest tuition increases, would run counter to the wishes of students and legislators. The legislative conference committee that ironed out the final funding bill discussed including a requirement for campuses to freeze tuition or set a cap on increases, but decided not to include such requirements.

Shirvani suggested the board approve another option that would increase tuition by 2.5 percent at the two-year campuses, 3.5 percent at the four-year campuses, 4.23 percent at NDSU and 4.9 percent at UND.

But others backed the first plan – including NDSU Student Body President Robert Lauf. He said he didn’t want tuition increases, but he also recognized it was the only way to ensure this new funding model would be successful.

“If that puts the equity dollars at stake for NDSU, that’s unacceptable,” he said.


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