- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A small two-year college in northwestern North Dakota that offers free tuition to high-school graduates in the area is expanding the effort to Montana.

Williston State College began the program two years ago in Williams County to increase the number of professionals such as nurses and accountants in the booming oil patch. This year the effort was expanded to the North Dakota counties of Burke, Divide, McKenzie and Mountrail through a related but separate program.

Beginning next fall, free tuition will also be offered in Montana’s Daniels, Richland, Roosevelt, Sheridan, and Valley counties, opening the effort to an additional 600 high school seniors, according to John Miller, the college’s acting president.

“Eastern Montana is a great service area for WSC and we have a strong alumni base there,” WSC Foundation Executive Director Terry Olson said in a statement. “The time was right to include them.”

Tuition and fees at the school cost about $170 per credit hour for both North Dakota and Montana residents, according to data from school spokeswoman Natalie Boese.

The program in Williams County is funded mainly by the Alva J. Field Memorial Trust, which has contributed $1.8 million, and $900,000 through the North Dakota Higher Education Challenge Fund. The trust is named for a man who was a teacher and community leader in Williston in the early 1900s. The Legislature created the matching grant fund in 2013 to spur philanthropic giving to higher education.

The effort in the surrounding North Dakota and Montana counties is funded through local donors, according to Boese.

The Williams County Graduate Scholarship and Regional County Scholarship programs so far have awarded about $800,000 to 428 students. The effort has led to record fall enrollments at the college the past two years. More than 40 percent of the 1,039 students enrolled this fall are students who qualify for the program. Students must maintain full-time status, enroll for four consecutive semesters and keep a minimum grade-point average of 2.0. They also must enroll in at least one on-campus course each semester.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott praised the effort in a statement, calling it “innovative” and saying the expansion will give more students “opportunities for success.”

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This story has been corrected to show that funding for the outlying counties comes from local donors, not from the trust and the state matching grant fund.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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