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Cali Owings, Published March 26 2014

ND higher ed board to set limits on tuition increases today; student want them as low as possible

BISMARCK – The state Board of Higher Education meets today to set caps for tuition increases at the state’s 11 public colleges and universities for the next academic year.

If the schools follow an emerging pattern, the four-year colleges will raise tuition as much as they possibly can – though the system’s chancellor says he thinks that won’t be the case this year.

The board sets a limit for each school, but campus leaders ultimately decide how much more students will pay each year. Next year, for instance, the proposed increase caps at the four-year schools range from 3.28 percent to 5.09 percent.

Over the last nine academic years, it’s the exception – not the rule – that a four-year school opts for a smaller tuition increase than the cap. The University of North Dakota, Minot State University, Mayville State University and Valley City State University have each done it once.

Since 2005, neither North Dakota State University nor Dickinson State University has ever set its tuition increases below the board-approved threshold. NDSU was even granted approval by the board for an 8.8 percent increase in 2011, well above that year’s 2.5 percent cap at other schools.

Before 2005, when increases were capped at 9.5 percent for all schools, students at four-year universities saw tuition increases of between 14.5 and 20.4 percent. A decade ago, NDSU raised tuition by 18 percent, or $608.

Students feel sting

Tuition hikes today are more modest, but students say they still hurt.

The NDSU student government is “comfortable” with a proposed 3.28 percent tuition increase limit that will be considered by the board, said Robert Kringler, a sophomore who handles government relations for the student governing body.

Kringler said students realize there’s some inevitability to tuition increases and just want to keep them as low as possible.

“It’s unrealistic to hope for a tuition freeze. A 3 percent increase is more manageable than a 4 percent,” he said.

But even a small increase could be a burden for students. NDSU students paid about $200 more this year than they did in 2012-13.

“If someone is working an $8 an hour job, that's a lot of hours you need to be working to make up that difference,” Kringler said.

Taking on more hours at work to offset rising tuition costs could work against students because they might not be focusing on school as much and will take longer to graduate, he said.

Funding shortages

Tuition increases help cover the cost to continue programs at area colleges, but the state also has a share of that cost.

For this academic year, about $3.5 million of the state’s share of the University System’s “cost to continue” was not funded by the state under the new funding model for higher education. Cost to continue programs include increased expenses for salary raises and benefits, utilities, inflation and student mental health services.

Now, the board will have a “precedent-setting question” when it decides how it will address state funding shortages with the new model, said Chancellor Larry Skogen.

“If the state does not appropriate the full cost of the state share, the decision is what do you do about that unfunded portion?” Skogen said.

The board is expected to discuss two proposals for tuition increases today – one offered by the chancellor and the college presidents and another recommended by the board’s budget and finance committee.

Skogen and the college presidents recommend that the increase limits be set to cover all or part of the student’s share of the cost to continue programs, plus the unfunded $3.5 million state share. At UND and NDSU, for example, they recommend increases of 4.23 and 4.9 percent, respectively, compared to the committee’s 3.28 and 3.72 percent caps.

“The presidents ask that the board recognize that full funding was not received and therefore has got to come from somewhere,” Skogen said.

‘Trust our presidents’

While students support the new funding model, Kringler said it’s unfortunate the state did not fully fund the cost to continue and it could instead fall on students.

“We are in a state with billions of dollars in reserves and yet we need to be asking for more money from students?” he said.

Though the presidents are seeking higher limits for tuition increases, Skogen said not all campuses will choose to raise tuition to the cap. Last year, only four schools raised tuition as much as they could. Three of the six four-year schools set their increase lower than their respective limits.

“We trust our presidents to do what’s in the best interest of their institution and their students,” he said. “[They] aren’t in the business of arbitrarily increasing costs for no reason.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599