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North Dakota senator plans to introduce legislation to increase scholarships for low-income students

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FARGO — As tuition at the state’s public colleges is set to rise, Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, plans to introduce legislation that would boost scholarships for low-income students by $11 million.

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The legislation would expand the number of recipients from about 8,000 to 10,000 and increase the scholarship amount by 3 percent, bringing the current $1,648 scholarship to $1,700 per student.

Last session, the Legislature increased spending for higher education by 11.9 percent, appropriating more than $900 million for the North Dakota University System and building projects. But Flakoll said the state hasn’t been as strong in its support for low-income students.

A recent report card of state support for public higher education by the Student Impact Project rated North Dakota a C+ grade based on increases in spending per student since 2008 and the proportion of the overall state budget that goes to higher education. In direct state aid to students, North Dakota received an F.

Flakoll said students and parents told him the state needs to put more resources into scholarships for the students who need it the most.

While there are some students and families in North Dakota that can pay for tuition and fees, Flakoll said for some, the cost to attend college is a barrier.

“We want to reduce and melt away those barriers of the cost of education whenever possible,” he said.

Between 1995 and 2010, the number of low-income students attending college in North Dakota increased from 26.2 percent to 33.2 percent, according to a 2012 report from the Midwestern Higher Education Compact.

By expanding the program, about 35 percent of students at colleges in North Dakota would be recipients of the need-based scholarships.

Increased funding per student would cover about 23 percent of the current cost of tuition and fees for a fulltime student at North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, the state’s two research universities. It would cover 27 percent of the cost at Mayville State University, a regional four-year school, and 40 percent of the cost at North Dakota State College of Science, a two-year campus.

Combined with the state’s merit-based scholarships, Flakoll said “a significant portion” of a student’s education expenses could be covered.

“We’re trying to do things to reduce student debt so they don’t have that hanging over them when they get out of college,” he said.

North Dakota graduates in 2011 had about $27,800 in student debt – higher than the national average that year of $26,600, according to the MHEC report.

In the long run, increasing state aid to students is helpful because they might not have to work through college, can take more rigorous course loads and graduate in a timely manner, he said.

Between now and January, Flakoll said he’ll continue to share the plan with his colleagues in the Legislature, find co-sponsors and build bipartisan support. He also said he hopes the North Dakota Student Association, which represents students at the state’s 11 public colleges, supports the plan.

“There’s a lot of support of dollars following students and not just going atlarge to the campuses,” he said.

To be eligible for the state’s need-based scholarship program, students at any North Dakota higher education institution must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by April 15.

First-time undergraduates at any public, private or tribal college in the state are eligible. Part-time students are eligible for a partial award.

Awards are based on financial need and distributed directly to the institution the recipient is attending.

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