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Other views: Use wealth to forgive ND tuition

State Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, has the right idea about expanding a college scholarship program to include more low-income students.

Flakoll, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is among the more visionary thinkers about higher education in the Legislature (there aren’t many). He wants to boost scholarships by $11 million, and add another 2,000 recipients to the approximately 8,000 who receive help now. His proposal would increase the individual scholarship to $1,700 from $1,648.

It’s a good plan that will give more qualified students the opportunity to attend a state college or university. But like so many higher education initiatives, it’s only marginally helpful to a few students. Moreover, it dances around the elephant in the room: North Dakota’s astonishing new wealth.

Last week, the state Board of Higher Education approved tuition increases within a mandated legislative cap. It’s a repeat of a pattern that has been in place for years — a drip, drip, drip of tuition increases. State officials like to brag that higher education is a bargain, but the reality is different. It’s getting prohibitively expensive for more and more North Dakota families. The individual debt load on North Dakota students is higher than the national average. Not much bragging by state officials about that statistic.

Education leaders and lawmakers should get serious about investing a meaningful portion of the state’s unprecedented energy/agriculture wealth in lowering, or better yet, eliminating undergraduate tuition for qualified North Dakotans (and possibly out-of-state students, as well) who attend a state school. The tuition break could be initially linked to admission standards, and then to academic performance.

There are several permutations to tuition forgiveness. A few states have their own programs. North Dakota has the resources and expertise to develop its own version — one that reflects the unique needs of each of the 11 campuses and the diverse circumstances of students.

Lawmakers tend to crow that the Legislature has been very generous to higher education, as if funding the campuses were merely about legislative generosity. What nonsense.

The university system is not an add-on. It’s the engine in the state’s long-term economic success. It’s the vital factor in an equation that determines whether an individual is broadly educated, or narrowly trained to do a discreet job. The difference is profound.

North Dakota has the wealth to at least halt tuition escalation, or at best to eliminate tuition altogether. Educators and lawmakers need to summon the will to cobble together a visionary program that could, if done right, be an example for the nation and, more importantly, incentive for North Dakota students to excel.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.