North Dakota Has More to Gain From Improving University Completion Rates Than Increasing Enrollment


There has been a long standing debate in the area of higher education policy in North Dakota over the issue of tuition waivers.

On one side of the debate are those who insist that our state gains by increasing enrollment through policies like tuition waivers. They tell us that this brings in students from out of state who will stay here and help address our state’s chronic labor shortages. On the other side of the debate are people, myself included, who argue that waivers are a costly way to promote indiscriminate enrollment growth that, while great for those who see the mission of higher education as bigger campuses and larger sports programs, is not conducive to the academic mission of our public institutions.

The proponents of waivers (NDSU President Dean Bresciani is a notably caustic example) have mostly been winning the argument. Back in 2013 there had been a sharp spike in the dollar value of institutional waivers (those given at the discretion of the universities), with a peak well north of $30 million in the 2011-2012 academic year. In the 2015-2016 academic year the NDUS issued $29.6 million in discretionary waivers according to the most recent report.

NDSU alone accounted 42 percent of students receiving those waivers.

But are the proponents right? Are tuition waivers a good investment? We know they’re bringing students to campuses, which is great for the big business of higher education, but if those students don’t stay in the state we North Dakota taxpayers end up subsidizing the education for another state’s workforce.

The North Dakota Information Technology Department has just issued a first-of-its-kind report on this situation in North Dakota, and the numbers are something less than impressive. “The question of how many students stick around to live and work in North Dakota has been the topic of many policymaker debates, but there was no real data to track graduates,” reports Kevin Killough:

“All they had was survey data,” said Jen Weber, chair of the state longitudinal data system committee.

Now the state has some hard, verifiable data, Weber said.

Released last month, the NDUS Graduate Retainment and Waiver Report by the North Dakota Statewide Longitudinal Data System shows about 44 percent of students who graduate from the NDUS still are working in the state seven years after they complete their first degree.

Students who graduated from a North Dakota high school have even higher rates, with more than 62 percent working in the state seven years after receiving their first degree.

Just more than 18 percent of students who did not graduate from a high school in the state are still working in the state seven years after receiving their first degree.

Most students who enter the North Dakota University System from a North Dakota High School are staying in the state, while less than 1 out of 5 students who come from outside of the state are staying.

What’s more, those students receiving tuition waivers are less likely to stay in North Dakota than those who do: “Contrary to the intent of the tuition waivers, the report found that only 32.3 percent of students who received these waivers for part or all of their tuition for bachelor’s degrees still were working in the state seven years after their first degree, compared with 40.6 percent who received no waivers.”

This seems devastating for the arguments made by the proponents of tuition waivers, and quite helpful to those of us who argue that the priority in higher education shouldn’t be enrollment growth but improving completion rates.

Tuition waivers  and enrollment growth cost money, both in terms of lost revenues for the universities and the increased costs of accommodating more students. Will enrollment growth result in more people staying in North Dakota to live and work?

Perhaps, but as this data shows the percentages will be small.

What if, instead, we increased graduation rates for the students who are already attending these institutions? What if we began putting an emphasis on quality over quantity?

It would be a better use of our tax dollars.

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