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Hoeven seeks boost in state college grants

BISMARCK -- Gov. John Hoeven will ask legislators to create a $40 million state college tuition grant program, he said Friday, a more than six-fold increase over an existing program.

The money would come from the state's general fund.

Hoeven said that, if enacted, his Aid for College Tuition-North Dakota program, or ACT-ND, would provide up to $2,000 per year to 11,000 students who qualify under state needs-based limits, he said with the average assistance would be $1,800.

Hoeven made the announcement at Bismarck State College Friday morning as part of his re-election campaign, backed by several Republican legislators and college students. He repeated the announcement in Fargo and Grand Forks in the afternoon.

His opponent, Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who announced a tuition assistance proposal on Thursday, said the plan provides little assistance.

The governor said that, under his plan, if students can combine a larger state grant with federal Pell Grants, students could receive $4,200 per year, enough to cover all of the tuition at the state's two-year colleges, and at least 80 percent of the tuition at the state's four-year public universities.

Students at the state's public and private colleges would be eligible.

Hoeven said the proposal will be tailored to also fit with legislators' efforts to increase the work force in North Dakota, providing aid to some students on a non-need basis if they are entering careers in which the state needs workers.

The existing state grant program, which has a $6 million appropriation for 2007-09, has fallen far short of meeting students' needs, according to the North Dakota University System's 2008 report on affordability. The maximum available is $800 per year. Last school year, the program had 33,580 applicants, with more than 20,000 of them showing need. Only 20 percent -- barely 4,000 of them -- got grants.

Rachelle Hadland, a lobbyist for the North Dakota Student Association, said Hoeven's plan will help students stay in North Dakota because they'll graduate with less debt.

"It will enable us to focus on school instead of worrying about jobs and where the money is going to come from," said Bryce Loehrke, a Bismarck State College student.

Hoeven campaign manager Don Larson said 11,000 represents full time, resident North Dakota undergraduate students in two- or four-year programs who have demonstrated financial need. He said the governor got the figure from the North Dakota University System and tailored the proposal's dollars to address that segment of the student population.

The total NDUS head count for the state-owned colleges and universities in the fall of 2007 was nearly 42,000. That includes non-resident students, part time students, graduate students and students who can pay their own way.

On Thursday, Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, announced a college tuition reimbursement plan for students who stay to work in North Dakota once they leave college. It would reimburse students in eight annual payments.

His announcement did not contain a price tag.

Mathern said he's "disappointed" that Hoeven's plan "provides so little assistance, paying less than half the costs of the yearly $5,300 tuition bill and leaving out 8,000 resident students.

"Our students need real relief for the rising cost of college. What they don't need is a plan with a slick name like ACT-ND that doesn't address their needs," Mathern said. He said it also encourages graduates to leave the state.

Mathern's plan would reimburse the full cost of tuition if the graduating students take a job with a North Dakota employer for up to eight years, with one eighth of the reimbursement each of the eight years. Students who stay for only part of the eight years will get partial benefit.

Hoeven said Mathern's idea resembles initiatives that voters defeated in 2002 and which legislators rejected last year.

Chancellor Bill Goetz said he's pleased that both candidates aim to elevate the discussion about student affordability.

Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this story.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.