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ND colleges affordable, but strive for education that matches investment

UND junior Summer Schnellbach takes advantage of seasonable weather to study before class outside of Merrifield Hall on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — College freshmen are now a few weeks into their first year on campus at North Dakota colleges.

On the other end of the spectrum, recent graduates who donned caps and gowns last spring are now a few months out — and likely considering the prospect of their first student loan payments.

Students from both undergraduate and graduate levels of education across the country have accrued a total of $1.3 trillion of debt, according to statistics gathered by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The statistic is a little staggering at face value, but Jeff Lieberson, APLU vice president for public affairs, is quick to provide additional context when talking about the debt pool as it sits among students at public institutions.

"One thing that I think gets misrepresented a little bit is the amount of debt that students take on," Lieberson said. "You'll see a lot of headlines about six figures of debt — but that's less than one-half of 1 percent of public university graduates."

Colleges and universities have always been expected to produce graduates, but the mounting levels of debt have placed a renewed obligation on institutions to provide results to those students who walk through their gates.

When looking at undergraduates in the state who complete their degrees, a 2017 North Dakota University System affordability report pegged the average student debt load at about $27,000. The average debt loads for graduates of the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University is set about $6,000 greater than that, while the debt accrued by graduates at the state's other four-year universities — including Mayville State University — is roughly $2,000 less.

The NDUS report lists a national average debt level of $30,100 per student. APLU statistics put the average at $25,500.

Even the lighter load can be a lot of money for a young person, but Lieberson points to the higher average career earnings of a college graduate as one reason why a student might consider taking on debt as a personal investment.

However, it takes a completed degree to make that debt actually go to work for the students who hold it.

"Where students can start to get into trouble is where they leave school without a degree, that they started to spend a considerable amount of money but don't have credentials to show for it," Lieberson said.

UND President Mark Kennedy places his own commentary about educational costs within a value-added framework. Kennedy has made frequent mention in the past year of the higher career earnings typically seen by college graduates — a lifetime average of $1 million more than their peers who only graduated high school, as cited by the APLU — when he discusses the costs of higher education, and he emphasizes that "the biggest way we can give value is if they get a diploma."

After tuition increases approved last spring by the state Legislature, UND's base annual tuition for in-state students is about $8,400. That cost sets the university below many of its regional counterparts, but Kennedy says that maintaining the absolute lowest sticker price in the field shouldn't be a priority in its own right if it doesn't correlate with a persistently high-value education.

"My view is that the No. 1 way that we can ensure that the investment that students and their parents make on higher ed degree is to give them that degree in the end," he said. "If you skimp, you're doing a disservice to the students."

That's not to say that the importance of price is lost. Kennedy points to campus measures like increasing use of open educational resources, which reduce student costs on textbooks and other learning tools, and the ramping up of fundraising to be used to back student scholarships.

Changes in policy, such as reducing by five the total number of credits required for graduation and granting students more leeway in applying credits to multiple degrees, should also help to save money over the course of an undergraduate degree, Kennedy said.

Efforts to cut costs for students at UND might be in good company across the NDUS. The system's affordability report pointed to a recent drop of 2.4 percent in the average overall student loan indebtedness at graduation between 2014-15. That dip bucked a national trend of rising indebtedness that saw an average increase of 4 percent for new graduates.

The report also indicated that the net prices of North Dakota universities were, across the board, more favorable to low-income families than at regional peer institutions.

Derek Sporbert sees some of that first-hand at UND. Sporbert is the director of the university's TRiO Programs, a set of five initiatives funded mainly by the federal government and aimed at students from low-income backgrounds, as well as those who are among the first generation of their families to attend college. That latter group includes about 13 percent of the UND undergraduate population.

On the whole, the programs are intended to increase access and affordability of higher education to potentially disadvantaged students. Sporbert says the TRiO Programs at UND are the oldest in the nation to receive continuous funding over the 52-year life of the federal initiative — to him, that "really speaks to the level of support that UND gives to this population."

Sporbert acknowledged that tuition has gradually risen at the university as it has at schools across the country but said UND was still a "bargain" compared to other schools beyond North Dakota. And while he said a four-year degree might not be for everyone, Sporbert said higher education remains a good route for those who want it.

"It's a business decision," he said. "You have to ask yourself, are you going to invest in yourself and set aside a few years to get educated to obtain a professional job somewhere? If that's the course you want to go on, UND is a good option."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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