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MATTERS AT HAND: N.D. tuition plans don't go far enough

The cost of higher education is the issue of the hour in North Dakota. Both candidates for governor have released plans to help students pay tuition costs.

The cost of higher education is the issue of the hour in North Dakota. Both candidates for governor have released plans to help students pay tuition costs.

This is an excellent issue, of course, since it involves paying both for giving and getting an education in North Dakota.

Democratic candidate Tim Mathern would reimburse the cost of tuition if students stayed in the state after graduation. One who stayed eight years would get all the money back.

Gov. John Hoeven's plan provides the money up front in the form of tuition grants of as much as $2,000 a year. The grants would be based on need. Hoeven estimates that about 11,000 North Dakota students would qualify.

He also proposes grants for students who train for jobs in high demand in the state.


There's been a good deal of sniping back and forth about the particulars of these plans, and each of them has its shortcomings. In the end, neither goes quite far enough.

The big problem with Mathern's plan is that students who need financial aid would have to borrow up front. And they'd have to stay in North Dakota in order to qualify for any money. That limits their opportunities and amounts to a kind of economic coercion.

Mathern's propsal reflects longstanding pessimism among Democrats about North Dakota's prospects. This began with George Sinner in 1984. He became known among reporters as "Gov. Gloom and Doom."

Developments have outrun this pessimism. North Dakota is short of workers now. The state Commerce Department estimates that there are as many as 14,000 jobs available here.

Hoeven reckons that the state has jobs for many students, and he sweetens their prospects with grants for those who train for jobs in demand.

Paradoxically, however, Hoeven's plan is aimed at students coming from families with lower incomes, since it's based on need. But they'd get the money when they needed it, to pay current tuition costs.

Mathern would reimburse everybody, no matter the income, rich or poor alike. His plan would reimburse the full cost of tuition, though. Hoeven's plan provides only about half the money needed to attend UND or NDSU, the state's research institutions.

Hoeven's plan is therefore cheaper, about $40 million by his estimate. Mathern's would cost less initially, about $11 million in 2010, its first year, but $89 million annually after eight years. Again, these are the candidate's own estimates.


But cost hasn't been part of the debate because North Dakota can clearly afford either program.

In fact, the state could afford more. The current budget surplus is estimated at about $1 billion, and revenue is pouring in, chiefly from sales taxes and taxes on oil production. Although the state's economy seems to be slowing a little bit, there is no apparent threat to the state treasury.

The candidates should therefore think bigger.

Some states, Georgia notable among them, provide higher education tuition free to qualified state residents, and that would be an option in North Dakota.

Plus, the state is rich enough to provide tuition incentives to students from outside the state. North Dakota could offer scholarships, even grants, to nonresident students, as well.

North Dakota has more classrooms than it does students, and this excess capacity is expensive. Filling it up is economically efficient.

We also know that many of the young people who come to North Dakota as students chose to stay to build careers and raise families.

Both plans have another shortcoming. Neither addresses the fundamental challenge to the higher education system, chronic under funding.


It's true that increasing enrollment helps the bottom line on the state's campuses, it won't be enough to close the gap between North Dakota colleges and their peers in other states. That's going to take direct appropriations.

And then there is the larger context. The critical need in North Dakota is to build the economy. Creating jobs will create opportunities for students, who will choose to stay. The jobs themselves will be the incentive.

Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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