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OUR OPINION: Board should have set tighter lid on tuition

The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education does a great job of watching out for the state’s colleges and universities.

But one of these days, the board should turn its eagle eye to protecting the interests of North Dakota taxpayers and students. That means rejecting tuition-hike proposals on key occasions and calling on the schools to live within their means.

Thursday’s meeting would have been a great time to do just that.

Alas, a board majority OK’d higher tuition caps than the board’s more budget-minded members had recommended. And that was a mistake.

The majority cast its vote even after the minority pleaded with their fellow members to put the students first.

A budget-conscious vote to keep a tight lid on tuition would send “a clear message that the Board of Higher Education does have the ability to get its arms around this and help the students when it comes to tuition increases,” board member Grant Shaft said.

As for some presidents’ claims that the higher tuition is needed to keep the lights on and the laboratories stocked — well, Shaft made short work of that complaint:

“I think the arguments about terminating employees and losing certain services and programs for students — that’s a bunch of hogwash,” he said.

“Because we just came out of a legislative session that historically funded all of our campuses. And if anybody wants to say with a straight face that these campuses after that type of funding do not have the ability to find these additional dollars, I’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell you.”

Shaft was right. The majority should have been more sensitive to the perception that taxpayers and students already have given enough.

Want more proof? Take a look at Thursday’s front page of The Forum newspaper in Fargo.

The Forum is 110 percent aware of North Dakota State University’s importance to Fargo’s culture, economy and quality of life. But the paper devoted the full “above the fold” portion of its front page to a mere preview of Thursday’s board meeting.

That’s how important the topic of tuition was to the paper’s editors.

“Tuition hikes nearly always hit state caps,” the boldfaced banner headline read. And for a quote to feature with the headline, the editors chose this, from an NDSU sophomore in student government:

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

For the board, the writing was on the wall. Clearly, North Dakotans would have welcomed a very public and visible effort to clamp down on tuition hikes, even if that meant forcing the universities to find ways to cut some costs.

Later this year, of course, North Dakotans are going to vote on whether to eliminate the board entirely, replacing it with a three-person commission.

The issue is on the ballot in large part because of taxpayer and lawmaker unhappiness with the board, as described here.

So, while the usual response to Thursday’s tuition-cap vote might be, “Well, chalk it up as a missed opportunity,” this time is different. Because November is fast approaching; and for the board, there aren’t many opportunities left.