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Out-of-state students benefit state colleges

In a recent flurry of letters to state newspapers, the North Dakota Taxpayers' Association claimed that state taxpayers were "subsidizing" out-of-state college students. Instead of subsidizing out-of-state students, it suggested that reducing the number of out-of-state students would result in cheaper tuition for in-state students.

Apparently, the Association did not bother to analyze the recent report prepared by Dr. F. Larry Leistritz of North Dakota State University on the economic impact of the institutions of higher learning on the state and particularly on the 11 college cities.

North Dakota state and local governments have been seeking the magic employment bullet by pouring millions of dollars into economic development strategies since the founding of the first Economic Development Commission in 1957. Our goal -- no, our obsession -- has been to increase the number of jobs available in the state so we can keep our young people in the state and win back the hearts of those who left for greener pastures.

If given the opportunity, we would mortgage the Bank of North Dakota to attract any industry that would generate 35,000 jobs in 11 strategic locations across the state. It is an industry we already have. It is called the North Dakota University System and its prosperity rests on the enrollment of 40,000 students, each of whom pour around $8,000 into local economies, thereby enhancing business profits and tax revenues all across the state.

Making up 35 percent of the college enrollment, the out-of-state students bring a major portion of those profits and taxes. And the chambers of commerce in each of the 11 college cities know that every student -- in-state or out-of-state -- is an economic asset to the community. It is a narrow view that discounts the importance of out-of-state students to the state's economic and social well-being.

The claim that the elimination of out-of-state students would lower tuition for in-state students is dubious. By enrolling in our institutions, the out-of-state students are helping meet the sunk costs at a time when the state high schools are graduating too few students to maintain our present institutions. The truth is that we need out-of-state students. The classrooms and facilities are going to exist whether out-of-state students are enrolled or not.

Half of the enrollment at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State now consists of out-of-state students. Eliminating these students would not result in cutting the operating costs of these institutions in half. Some cutting would be possible but, with fewer students enrolled, the per-student cost of running the colleges would go up, meaning increased costs for the remaining students.

But universities are about more than economic benefits. As soon as they come into existence, they are obligated to help society educate young people, regardless of residence. This obligation does not end at state boundaries. The overly parochial view of the Taxpayers' Association would have North Dakota shirk this obligation.

The North Dakota Taxpayers' Association proposed a comprehensive study of the matter. A good idea. This myth about the burden of out-of-state students -- believed by many across the state -- should be put to rest once and for all with an objective analysis focused on the costs and benefits of having out-of-state students in our colleges.