Minnesota’s offer of tuition-free college stirs up North Dakota politicians

**North Dakota Higher Education Officials Concerned About Loss of Students and Revenue as Minnesota Makes Tuition Free**

Higher education officials in North Dakota are expressing deep concerns about the potential loss of students and revenue in 2024 when neighboring Minnesota implements a program that provides free tuition for thousands of residents. The program, called North Star Promise, is estimated to attract around 15,000 to 20,000 Minnesota students per year, leading to an anticipated loss of $8.4 million in combined tuition and fees for North Dakota. This article explores the implications of Minnesota’s tuition-free program on North Dakota’s higher education landscape and discusses the reactions from officials and lawmakers.

**Catastrophic Implications for North Dakota**

North Dakota education officials project a significant impact on their colleges and universities as a result of Minnesota’s free tuition program. David Cook, the president of North Dakota State University, describes the situation as “catastrophic.” The state estimates that approximately 1,400 Minnesota students currently attending North Dakota higher education institutions may be eligible for the North Star Promise program, further exacerbating the potential impact. The loss of these students could have severe financial consequences for North Dakota’s educational institutions.

**Minnesota Students’ Dominance in North Dakota Institutions**

Minnesota students comprise a substantial portion of the student body in North Dakota colleges and universities. North Dakota State University is particularly affected, with Minnesota students making up nearly half of the student body. The University of North Dakota and North Dakota State College of Science also rely heavily on Minnesota students, who accounted for nearly 40% of first-year students. The potential loss of these students could create significant challenges for North Dakota’s higher education system.

**The North Star Promise Program**

The North Star Promise program in Minnesota aims to make public post-secondary education more accessible by providing free tuition and fees for eligible students. Under the program, students from families with incomes below $80,000 can have their undergraduate tuition and fees covered after utilizing other sources of financial aid. The program is set to start in fall 2024.

**Positive Impact on Students and Families**

Minnesota’s tuition-free program is expected to have a positive impact on the lives of many students and their families. Kari Rod, a resident of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, believes that the North Star Promise program will allow her to return to college and complete her degree without accumulating additional student loan debt. It also provides an incentive for her stepson to attend college in-state after high school. The program opens up new opportunities for Rod’s five-year-old child as well. The initiative aims to make higher education more affordable and accessible for all, ensuring a skilled workforce that can compete in the global marketplace.

**Similar Initiatives in Other States**

Minnesota is not alone in its efforts to provide free college tuition. According to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, more than half of the states in the country now offer some form of free college tuition, often referred to as “Promise” programs. While some states have few eligibility limits, many, like Minnesota, have income restrictions or merit requirements. These initiatives reflect a growing recognition of the importance of affordable higher education and the need to equip the workforce with the necessary skills.

**Proposed Legislation in North Dakota**

Despite the concerns raised by North Dakota higher education officials, there are plans to introduce similar legislation in the state. Democratic state Sen. Tim Mathern is working on a bill that would establish a program similar to Minnesota’s North Star Promise for North Dakotans. However, the Republican-supermajority Legislature presents challenges for its passage. Nevertheless, Mathern believes that instead of criticizing Minnesota’s program, it is essential to think creatively about the possibilities within North Dakota.

**Implications and Responses**

The financial implications of Minnesota’s free tuition program have sparked discussions and responses from various stakeholders. North Dakota education officials estimate that providing tuition and fees for all eligible students would cost over $17.2 million annually. Interim legislative panels and university leaders are exploring the potential impacts and developing strategies to address the situation. Republican Rep. Mark Sanford emphasizes the need for a comprehensive approach beyond a one-state response, given the evolving delivery methods of education and workforce challenges. Republican House Majority Leader Mike Lefor emphasizes the importance of thoughtful and well-informed decision-making rather than hasty reactions.

**Tuition Freeze and Necessity for a Comprehensive Response**

In an attempt to remain competitive with neighboring states, North Dakota’s Legislature has already implemented a statewide tuition freeze for all students for the next two years. However, lawmakers and education officials recognize the need for a comprehensive response that considers campus programs’ attractiveness to out-of-state students. Mark Hagerott, the Chancellor of the North Dakota University System, expresses confidence in avoiding a catastrophe through strategic and thoughtful actions.

In conclusion, Minnesota’s free tuition program presents significant challenges for North Dakota’s higher education institutions. The loss of students and revenue could have far-reaching consequences. While efforts are underway to explore similar initiatives in North Dakota, lawmakers and education officials are focusing on comprehensive and strategic responses to address these challenges effectively.

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