Omdahl: Fighting tuition increases and student debt

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota interim President Ed Schafer has been making a valiant effort to curb the relentless increase of student tuition.Of North Dakota's institutions of higher learning, UND has to climb the highest mountain to...

Lloyd Omdahl

GRAND FORKS - University of North Dakota interim President Ed Schafer has been making a valiant effort to curb the relentless increase of student tuition.
Of North Dakota’s institutions of higher learning, UND has to climb the highest mountain to meet budget shortfalls - $13 million. Some of this deficit was caused by a decline in state revenue but much of it was the result of miscalculations of increases in student tuition.
Tuition has been out of hand for at least 10 years. The annual cost of attending UND and NDSU has increased from $11,700 in 2003-04 to around $19,000 in 2013-14, with almost half (40 percent) attributable to tuition and mandatory fees.
Increases in federal grant money, e.g. Pell grants, have helped but over 80 percent of North Dakota graduates are leaving school with debt, putting North Dakota at the head of the nation in this category. Average debt for graduates was $28,000.
There is plenty of blame to pass around. We can point to inflation for some of it but tuition increases have outrun inflation so we have to look elsewhere for the villains.
As justification for high tuition, college budget-crunchers point to other institutions in the region because they have also recorded significant tuition increases. The theory here is that higher and higher tuition is OK when everybody is doing it.
Some blame belongs to the bulging bureaucracies. They have grown much faster than student enrollment so increases in payroll cannot be attributed to the need for more faculty in the classrooms.
Here is how bureaucracies grow. We not only create new vice presidents and new deans but they need assistant vice presidents and assistant deans to do the work. And the assistant vice presidents and the associate deans need administrative assistants to pass along the work handed down from the vice presidents and the deans.
Much of this bureaucratic expansion has been financed partly by raising tuition.
Then to keep the alumni and local chambers of commerce happy, every institution is pushed into the highest division possible in sports and also provide the arenas and gyms that are equal to, if not better than, competing universities and colleges. Gate receipts fall short, so we raise tuition a little more.
To attract and dazzle students, we add institutional amenities with auxiliary programs and buildings and just add the cost to mandatory fees.
Every department, every program, every campus interest group wants a building and the institutions have been happy to comply. Buildings cost a bundle to maintain so these gifts are not always a blessing.
One day, I complimented Tom Clifford, UND’s president from 1971 to 1992, on a new building gifted to the university.
“It is great,” he said, “until you remember that it adds three maintenance people to the general payroll.” More need for student revenue.
But some of the blame for high tuition and student debt can be attributed to the students themselves. They want to live the life of Riley, even if it means placing themselves in bondage for 30 years.
A considerable number of students shun dormitory life, binge on weekends, head for Bermuda on spring break and drive late-model cars. These high expectations of college life exceed current resources, so students borrow against future earnings to maintain a carefree lifestyle.
Instead of tightening up administrations, cutting back on campus amenities, or lowering lifestyle expectations, most solutions treat the symptoms rather than the disease. Changing course is difficult, if not impossible.
It is a tough sell but Schafer is trying to change that mindset.
Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email him at .

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