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State leaders uncertain how free tuition would impact North Dakota

BISMARCK--One of the most important issues the 2016 presidential election cycle has been affordable tuition at colleges and universities, but those in the state are unsure how a free tuition model proposed by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton wo...

BISMARCK-One of the most important issues the 2016 presidential election cycle has been affordable tuition at colleges and universities, but those in the state are unsure how a free tuition model proposed by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton would impact the state of North Dakota.

Earlier this month, Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, released a plan to allow free tuition for a majority of the nation's students.

Under Clinton's plan, by 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities. That would cover more than 80 percent of all families, according to Clinton's website.

According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in North Dakota in 2014 was just over $51,000.

From the start of the plan, every student from a household income of more than $85,000 a year or less will be able to go to an in-state four-year public college or university without paying tuition. Students who attend community college would also pay no tuition.

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Clinton's plan also calls for an immediate three-month moratorium on student loan payments to all federal local borrowers and calls for the restoration of year-round Pell Grant funding so students can use the money to take summer classes.

In announcing the plan earlier this month, Clinton said the plan would be paid for by closing high-income tax loopholes, particularly of those from Wall Street, and then using that money to provide grants to states that agreed to invest matching funds in their state's public schools.

Larry Skogen, president of Bismarck State College and the former North Dakota University System interim chancellor, said until a more concrete plan is presented, it's difficult to say how a free tuition model would impact the state's schools.

North Dakota has typically had a philosophy that students need to have "skin in the game," and without it, students may work harder because they have a financial interest. Other states that have experimented with free community college, however, are seeing that students have had success getting their degrees nonetheless, Skogen said.

In Tennessee, where the recently promised Tennessee Promise was passed, allowing for free community college, enrollment increased 6 percent for full-time students and more than 80 percent of those students returned for their second semester, according to data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

"Anything anybody can do to help students attain their goals and to become productive members of society, I think is a good idea," Skogen said.

States with more educated residents tend to have fewer health problems, less crime and lower poverty rates, Skogen said.

One of the ways to accomplish this, he said, is by making school more affordable for those who want to attend. Skogen said there is a national issue of student debt, which means recent graduates have less of opportunity to buy cars and their first home, as well as have less discretionary money, most of which is going to pay back student loan debt.

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"Obviously having a more affordable higher education to get more people credentialed at whatever level is going to improve our society, so the more we can make that accessible, the better we are," Skogen said.

State lawmakers also said tuition costs in North Dakota is an important issue, but they're uncertain how a proposal such as Clinton's would work in North Dakota.

Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, the party's chairwoman, said a lot of the plan's impact on North Dakota would depend on how much the state itself would have to pay.

Either way, Oversen, whose district includes the University of North Dakota campus, said the state needs to make college more affordable.

"I don't know whether across the board free tuition is the answer or not, but since being elected, me and the the other legislators in my district - Mac Schneider and Corey Mock - have made having education costs affordable one of our top priorities and it will continue to be that way no matter what happens at the national level," Oversen said.

State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said if the state were to pick up tuition, it would be difficult for North Dakota to make ends meet. According to the North Dakota University System, in fiscal year 2015, the tuition and fee revenue for all state colleges and universities totaled $303 million.

'It would be a budget buster," said Holmberg, who chairs the state senate's appropriations committee. "I have not read economists that say, under the current taxing structure, the country could afford it."

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has not outlined a detailed plan regarding the cost of education. However, in an interview last year with The Hill, Trump said student loan debt needs to be addressed.

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"That's probably one of the only things the government shouldn't make money off," Trump said. "I think it's terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans."

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