College-town lawmakers push for tuition freeze
BISMARCK -- Some lawmakers do not want to see a tuition increase at public universities over the next two years, but some opponents say legislating the issue would erode the North Dakota University System's authority over determining the tuition rates.
Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, has proposed House Bill 1328 along with seven other lawmakers who represent cities with public universities, as "a step in the right direction to keep college affordable."
The bill would freeze tuition for the 2013-15 biennium at the 2013 spring rate.
"We owe it to our students and families to fully fund a quality higher education system in our state without shifting the burden upon those students," Oversen said.
Oversen highlighted the Institute for College Access & Success, which found North Dakota's 2011 college graduates had an average $27,425 in student debt -- ranked 13th highest in the nation.
The freeze would be applied to all students enrolled in a North Dakota public university and require the state to chip in an estimated $25 million to help offset the difference in lost revenues that would have been generated by a tuition increase.
Last year, the state allocated funding to buy-down the tuition increases at the state's two-year colleges. This year's bill asks to do the same for all 11 universities.
For instance, a 3-percent tuition increase at North Dakota State University for the 2013-14 academic year would add $184 to a student's tuition. If tuition is frozen, based on student population, the university would lose $4.9 million -- the University of North Dakota would be out about $4.7 million.
Logan Fletcher, UND student president, spoke briefly in favor of the bill Wednesday, and passed out copies of the UND Student Senate resolution favoring the proposal.
Committee members questioned Oversen on how the bill would maintain financial accountability of each university if the state comes in to offset the lost revenue.
Oversen said the Legislature already determines the system's budget, so the bill would be another incentive for universities to spend funds wisely.
Chancellor Hamid Shirvani stood in opposition to the bill, citing state law and portions of the constitution to illustrate how a legislative-mandated tuition freeze would infringe on the State Board of Higher Education and University System's authority over the state universities.
Shirvani said capping tuitions "erodes constitutional authority" and "takes away necessary flexibility to ensure we meet the needs of our students in the state for future generations."
Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, pointed out to Shirvani the Legislature provided the University System $389 million for the 2005-2007 biennium and $652 million in 2011-2013 .
"When is it going to stop?" he asked.
Chairman Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, who has seen a version of the bill many times, told Shirvani the Legislature is getting closer to passing a tuition freeze with no funding to colleges to offset the lost revenue after many years of the Legislature increasing the higher education budget, seeing tuition increases and hearing testimony to cap any tuition hikes.
"Were a lot closer there now than we were two years ago," Nathe said. "If nobody gets a handle on this, we're going to go down that road sooner or later and it won't be a pretty picture with the Legislature saying we will put up with the heat."