The North Dakota Student Association has identified grants, funding for a free online textbook program and overall system support as its three legislative priorities as the 2019-21 biennium gets started, NDSA President Jared Melville said.

Students from across the state unanimously approved NDSA's positions during its general assembly meeting in November, said Melville, who attends North Dakota State University.

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The NDSA "adamantly supports" the Challenge Fund Grant program, Melville said. Gov. Doug Burgum proposed in his budget address last month utilizing $40 million in earnings from the Legacy Fund to support the program this biennium.

"Whether funding stems from the Legacy Fund or the general fund, we hope to see the Legislature return the grant's appropriation to those equal to or exceeding appropriations," Melville said.

Since 2013, challenge funds have raised $90 million in student scholarships and $70 million in combined educational infrastructure, research, and technology for North Dakota campuses, according to Melville.

The program matches $1 for every $2 that a school is able to raise from the private sector. The money is used for scholarships and endowed faculty and received just $2 million in funding during the last biennium.

"We have discussed within the Student Association the needs of students from all 11 campuses, and all have been impressive in their support of the challenge funds," Melville said. "We were incredibly saddened to see funding for the program slashed during the last legislative session, and we strongly encourage the Legislature to substantively fund the program moving forward."

The Student Association also "urges the Legislature to make a significant and sustainable investment in OERs during this session."

Open educational resources, also known as OERs and sometimes referred to as open-access resources, allow students to save money on textbooks by using free online textbooks.

The number of classes using OERs exclusively across the university system has increased from just nine in the fall of 2014 to 240 in the fall of 2017, according to a recent state audit report.

Melville said there was an 82 percent increase in the price of textbooks between 2002 and 2012, which "serves as one contributing factor to the unsustainable college debt faced by students today."

"Today's students are very aware of this challenge and consider how the cost of textbooks each semester impacts their debt in the long-term," Melville said. "NDSA supports continued appropriations for OERs to give all students an equal advantage in their academic pursuits.

"Supporting OERs is supporting the modernization of education in the North Dakota University System."

The Student Association also supports overall "sufficient" funding for the state's public colleges and universities, Melville said.

In his proposed budget, Burgum recommended slashing higher education appropriations by 5 percent, but provided $90 million more in funding for areas like the Challenge Fund Grants and increased wages for faculty and staff across the system.

"Additional budget cuts will significantly complicate the ability of campuses to provide a quality education to their students," Melville said. "I personally lost some wonderful mentors as a result of the 18 percent appropriation cuts in the last session, and I have heard similar stories from many of my constituents across the state."

NDSA believes it would be "counterproductive" to reduce support for "one of the best tools used to tackle the state's unprecedented workforce shortage," Melville said.