The North Dakota Senate has voted to add private colleges to the state’s Challenge Grant program.

In a narrow vote, state senators approved an amendment to Senate Bill 2030 that would give the University of Mary, based in Bismarck, and the University of Jamestown access to the program, which helps fuel scholarships at colleges and universities across the state. It now must pass through the House before it can get final approval.

The dollars for the program come from the state general fund. And since the general fund is bolstered by the state income tax, amendment sponsor Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, believes everyone should have potential access to the fund.

The two private schools would only get access for student scholarships in the program.

The Challenge Fund program was started during the 2013-15 biennium. The program leverages private dollars by promising a partial state match. The state provides $1 of state money for every $2 of private donations within a per-campus limit.

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Money can go to student-focused areas, including scholarships, endowed chairs for a unique department, educational infrastructure – such as updated library resources, specialized software, STEM equipment and smartboards, among other items – or research and technology. The program has been popular among higher-ed institutions in the state.

The amendment introduced by Wanzek added the state’s private schools to the program, prompting considerable debate among legislators. Many say private schools should not be part of the program because state dollars should not be going to private schools.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, attended the University of Mary and voted against the amendment. She said she understood the decision she was making when attending a private college and knew that some state programs would not be available to her because of that decision.

“I believe it is our job to take care of our public institutions,” she said. “I fully support people's private decisions to go to private institutions, if that's the decision they make.”

During a floor session, Wanzek said he wants to “make it a little more popular” by helping all institutions and students in the state have access to the dollars.

“I understand our responsibility to address the needs of our public schools first, but I will remind you again, these dollars are intended to help our students regardless of what school they're going to,” he said. ”... I've always taken it as my responsibility to represent all the citizens and many of these students are citizens of our state as well.”

The amendment narrowly passed 24-23 and the full bill passed 29-18. Barring any reconsideration, the bill now moves to the House.

A separate amendment introduced by Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, which would keep funds from institutions that partner with organizations that perform abortions, also passed during the floor session. North Dakota State University has an educational partnership with Planned Parenthood; however, Planned Parenthood does not perform abortions in North Dakota. The Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo is the only clinic that performs abortions in the state.

In total, the bill, as amended, would give more than $20 million to colleges and universities across the state, including $3 million each to UND and NDSU, $2 million to Bismarck State College, Minot State University and the North Dakota State College of Science; $1.5 million to Dickinson State, Mayville State and Valley City State; and $750,000 each to Dakota College at Bottineau, University of Jamestown, Lake Region State College, University of Mary, and Williston State College.