- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota lawmakers are considering a pair of proposals that would freeze tuition at the state’s colleges and universities but at a steep cost to taxpayers.

Freezing tuition helps students “withstand” cost-of-living increases and reduce their debt, and it would make the state’s 11 public schools more competitive, said Kelsey Klein, who attends Bismarck State College and is director of student affairs for the North Dakota Student Association.

“Maintaining an affordable price is essential to recruitment, retention and ultimately growing our state’s economy,” Klein told the House Appropriations Committee on Monday.

North Dakota’s university system has six four-year universities and five two-year colleges. University system data show the state’s two-year colleges at Bismarck, Bottineau, Devils Lake, Wahpeton and Williston are more expensive than their regional counterparts. The state’s four-year universities are less expensive than their regional counterparts, data show.

House Bill 1233 would prohibit raising tuition at all schools until 2017, at a cost of almost $30 million over the next two years to North Dakota taxpayers, who would have to make up the difference.

House Bill 1043 would prohibit raising tuition at the two-year colleges through 2017. Taxpayers would have to make up that difference, at a cost of more than $2.5 million.

The House Appropriations Committee took no action on the bills Monday.

Students could face tuition increases of up to 5.8 percent if the costs are not frozen by the Legislature, said Rep. Kylie Oversen, a Grand Forks Democrat and the main sponsor of the measure that would freeze tuition at all public colleges in the state.

“Admittedly, freezing tuition is not the long-term solution to college affordability,” Oversen said. But, she added, “it is a step in the right direction.”

Tuition expenses in North Dakota’s university system have risen steeply for more than a decade. Another bill considered last week by the Legislature would strip the State Board of Higher Education’s authority to set tuition and fees, and instead hand the task over to lawmakers.

Tuition and fees at North Dakota’s two-year schools was $326, or 8.6 percent more than the regional average, university system data show.

Rep. Mark Dosch, a Bismarck Republican, said the state’s two-year schools should look at cutting costs to keep tuition costs in check, instead of relying on the state’s tax-supported treasury to make up shortfalls.

“It seems to me we’re rewarding these inefficient institutions all the time to bring their costs down,” he said.

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