Free Tuition For North Dakota Students? Only If We Give It To The Students


Valley News Live asked University of North Dakota President Robert Kelly at a recent event if North Dakota should use its windfall of tax revenues to pay for tuition for the state’s college students.

Kelly, as you can see in the video report, seemed to like the idea. And of course he would. What business wouldn’t like the idea of an entitlement program for their product? I’m sure the Ford Motor Company would also like the government to give everyone a free car, too.

That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

One of the problems that has lead to the higher education bubble in America – soaring tuition costs, stagnating degree value, and a growing sort of campus decadence – is that we’ve basically made financing higher education an entitlement. Everyone who wants a student loan can get a student loan. And there is always an institute of higher education somewhere willing to take that student loan money.

This has created an epidemic of spiraling tuition costs and heavy student loan debt. And going from an entitlement to a student loan to an entitlement for tuition isn’t likely to fix anything. Not only would it be unwise for North Dakota to create such an entitlement (this tax revenue bonanza won’t last forever) but it’s going to further disconnect the universities from serving the students.

They’re going to be serving the entitlement instead.

Here are some scary numbers: According to a recent study, 24 percent of college graduates are still living at home with their parents two years after graduation. Far more, 73 percent, are receiving financial support from family. And 23 percent are either unemployed or underemployed, working less than 20 hours per week and/or employed at a job where a majority of their co-workers haven’t even attended a year of college.

That doesn’t speak highly for the much-vaunted value of a college degree after decades of government policy subsidizing college attendance.

To be sure, higher education does have plenty of value, but not for every single student.

But maybe there is a way for North Dakota to help students with tuition.

Consider this: North Dakota graduates roughly 7,000 high school seniors a year according to the Department of Public Instruction. In the current biennium, legislators appropriated about $902.6 million for the university system, or about $451 million per year, according to the most recent budget and finance numbers from Legislative Council.

What if we took that $450 million per year and divided up among North Dakota’s high school graduates? It would work out to more than $64,000 per student, or about $16,000 for every year of a four-year degree program. And the state could undoubtedly do even more, if we wanted to, given that not all high school graduates go on to college.

We could give students that money as a sort of voucher, and allow them to go to whatever university they want. North Dakota State University. Harvard. Yale. Wherever they want to go and can be accepted. The voucher could be used for tuition. Room and board. Books. Equipment.

Talk about empowering students. But, sadly, the way we do higher education today we seem far more interested in empowering campuses and politically-connected higher education bureaucrats.