BISMARCK — As North Dakota struggles to fill thousands of open jobs, the state's two-year colleges offering training in high-demand fields remain slightly more expensive than their peers in the region, state data shows.

A student affordability report produced by the North Dakota University System shows residents' direct costs of an education — tuition and fees as well as room and board — at the state's doctoral, master's and four-year universities are below their regional counterparts. But that's not the case for North Dakota's five two-year colleges.

In the 2018-19 academic year, the average direct costs of North Dakota's two-year colleges was $12,084, compared to the regional average of $10,720. The figures don't take into account indirect education-related expenses such as books and transportation.

Doug Darling, the president of Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, said the system's latest affordability report reflects a decades-long trend, but he said it hasn't been a "big hindrance" in recruiting students. He and other college administrators highlighted various initiatives to help students pay for school, such as generous scholarships, textbook rentals and industry partnerships.

Still, Darling said schools elsewhere rely less on tuition to fund their programs.

"We've done some cost containment, but in order for it to change, there would need to be some increase in state support," he said.

State lawmakers budgeted $910.6 million from the state's general checking account for higher education in 2013-15, but that number dipped to $660.5 million in 2019-21. The state saw a wave of budget cuts in 2016 amid falling oil prices.

But Bismarck State College President Larry Skogen pointed to data showing that while two-year colleges in South Dakota saw a 44% increase in resident tuition and fees over the past decade, North Dakota saw only a 3% bump. He credited funding from state lawmakers for blunting that growth.

The Legislature also capped tuition increases for resident students at 4% for each of the next two academic years, with some exceptions.

"When you're dealing with historical trends, it's hard to fix it overnight," Skogen said.

The North Dakota University System's affordability report shows the state's two-year colleges are slightly more expensive than their counterparts in the region. Troy Becker / Forum News Service
The North Dakota University System's affordability report shows the state's two-year colleges are slightly more expensive than their counterparts in the region. Troy Becker / Forum News Service

Meanwhile, the average debt at graduation among 2017 graduates of North Dakota's two-year colleges was about $14,900, or roughly half of the system-wide average of $29,275, according to the university system's affordability report. The estimated national average debt level that year was $28,650, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

Jane Vangsness Frisch, the vice president for student affairs at the North Dakota State College of Science, acknowledged a slightly higher price tag for two-year institutions here, but she said their peers in the region tend to be "community-based colleges" rather than technical schools that can carry increased costs for equipment.

State Board of Higher Education Chairman Nick Hacker said board members talk about two-year college affordability "frequently." He said those schools have taken "a pretty modest approach" to tuition increases to stay competitive.

"I think for a lot of years, people just didn't really think about tuition and the escalation," Williston State College President John Miller said. "We think about it often now."

Earlier this year, North Dakota lawmakers set aside $6 million for student loan repayment and scholarship programs in an effort to recruit and retain people in high-demand fields. A list of eligible programs released by the university system this week included a diverse group of pursuits, such as accounting, auto body repair and computer science.

Jamestown Republican Rep. Jim Grueneich, the bill's primary sponsor, called the new program a "step in the right direction" that could attract additional funding if it's well-received.

"There's an immediate need right now for skilled labor," he said. "I don't think anybody could probably deny that."

Workforce shortages have consistently attracted the attention of North Dakota officials. Gov. Doug Burgum estimated there are 30,000 open jobs in the state, which he said is the biggest barrier to the state's economic growth.

Other states have adopted so-called "promise programs" that offer tuition-free education at community or technical schools in an effort to generate more skilled workers. Hacker said he wasn't sure if such a model would work for North Dakota, but he called Grueneich's bill a "pilot" program.

"We have started down that path," he said. "We need to look at how to make that as effective as possible to encourage two-year trade and technical training that meets workforce needs."

Skogen didn't see cost as a major barrier for recruiting students, noting a two-year education remains more affordable than getting a four-year degree.

"They can get their education here affordably and in good-paying jobs in two years," he said. "Affordability is still our big message."