Higher ed budget comes with message: Keep tuition down

BISMARCK -- Legislators on Friday approved an 11.9 percent increase in state funding for higher education, but sent with it a strong message that campuses keep tuition affordable.

BISMARCK -- Legislators on Friday approved an 11.9 percent increase in state funding for higher education, but sent with it a strong message that campuses keep tuition affordable.

Senate Bill 2003 has nearly $679 million in ongoing general fund spending for the North Dakota University System, as well as $217.4 million in one-time spending for building projects and other initiatives.

The bill includes $122 million for a new building for the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, rather than the $68 million renovation Gov. Jack Dalrymple recommended in his budget. UND will receive more than $60 million for phase one of the medical school building this biennium and a $62 million loan from the Bank of North Dakota the following biennium.

The bill also funds the building projects requested by the university system, including $11.4 million for the UND Law School and $28.1 million for a science, technology, engineering and math classroom building at North Dakota State University.

However, in an effort to encourage campuses to be conservative with building projects, legislators gave campuses 95 percent of the project costs for buildings. The remaining 5 percent will be in a pool of funds under the system and available for campuses to access if projects exceed the 95 percent.


The vote was 30-11 in the Senate and 75-17 in the House.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who carried the bill in the Senate, said the conference committee had ample discussion about requiring campuses to freeze tuition or setting a cap on tuition increases. However, members opted not to include tuition requirements in the bill.

"We have assurances from folks involved at the Board of Higher Education that they would not do anything really stupid," Holmberg said.

Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said North Dakota leads the country in the percentage of students who graduate with debt, with the average debt exceeding $27,000.

Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, said University System personnel attended the conference committee meeting discussion about the Legislature's desire to keep tuition down.

"I think we sent a powerful message," Robinson said. "I think we can rest assured that if there are tuition creases, they will be minimal."

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who carried the bill in the House, said higher education officials indicated they weren't happy with changes to the bill, but were satisfied. The bill is $17 million less than what Dalrymple recommended for operating costs and $6 million below what Dalrymple recommended for building projects.

Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, called the nearly 12 percent spending increase "enormous and excessive" and said he'd oppose the bill.


Holmberg said while the increase may seem high, he pointed out that Department of Corrections budget is up 12.5 percent, the Department of Human Services budget is up 17 percent and the North Dakota Department of Health's budget increased 32 percent.

Legislators also approved Senate Bill 2200 that will change the way higher education is funded, a long-sought after fix that will fund campuses based on courses completed.

Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, said the new system will be transparent, consistent and easy to understand.

Student leaders who attended the debate said they are pleased with the funding and hope board members keep tuition increases down.

"It's good to see that North Dakota is willing to make that investment," said Shane Gebert, a representative of UND's student government.

Newly elected UND student body president Nick Creamer said higher education officials have assured him that tuition increases will be as close to zero as possible.

"I hope they hold true to that," Creamer said.

The classroom building at NDSU is greatly needed and the new funding formula will solve funding problems that have existed for nearly 20 years, said Robert Vallie, a North Dakota State University senior and former student representative to the state board,


UND Medical Dean Joshua Wynne, who had testified before lawmakers about the need for medical professionals as North Dakota's population grows, said he's extremely pleased.

"I think we're helping to construct the future of health care in North Dakota, and we are grateful for the support," Wynne said.

Board President Duaine Espegard said in an email statement the board is grateful for the unprecedented support by the Legislature.

"With that solid foundation, we can move forward in building one of the best higher education systems in the country," Espegard said.

Reporters Wendy Reuer and Robb Jeffries contributed to this report.

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