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University System survey to focus on student debt

GRAND FORKS — North Dakota University System officials are trying to understand how student debt got so out of hand and what they can do to fix it.

Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said the results of a monthlong statewide survey asking students what they spend their student loans on should be out in about a week. But he cautioned that North Dakota’s problems reflect a wider trend.

“This is a national crisis,” he said. “Student loan debt right now has surpassed credit card debt in the United States, so this is a national phenomenon.”

The assumption now is that loans are used on tuition fees, room and board, but the survey looks at a wider variety of expenses, such as transportation and the cost of health insurance, said Jennifer Vetter, president of the North Dakota Student Association.

“Basically, what we’re doing is getting preliminary data from students to see if the current assumptions about student debt are correct,” she said.

North Dakota students have some of the highest rates of indebtedness in the country, according to the Project on Student Debt, which is part of the Institute for College Access & Success. Eighty-three percent of the class of 2011 graduated with some form of debt, the most of any state that year. South Dakota was No. 2 with 76 percent. Minnesota was No. 5 with 71 percent.

Despite the lower than average cost of tuition in North Dakota, the class of 2011 at public universities had an average debt of $27,400, No. 13 in the nation. Minnesota was No. 3 with $29,800. South Dakota was No. 25 with $24,200.

The project didn’t have enough data from North Dakota institutions to offer a conclusion for the class of 2012.

Rising cost

It’s no secret the cost of higher education continues to increase in North Dakota.

Since the 2003-04 school year, the annual cost to attend the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University has increased by 60.9 percent to $18,800 in 2013-14, according to the University System’s Student Affordability Report released in January. That includes tuition, room and board, books and other costs.

In the same time-frame, the cost of other University System four-year universities increased 56.6 percent to $15,500 and the cost of two-year colleges increased 56 percent to $14,200.

Inflation was about 25 percent in the Midwest during that period.

“I don’t think we can draw conclusions without having all the facts, so I’m just not going to make the assumption that student debt is tied directly to the cost of education,” Skogen said. “Obviously it is in some way, but how big of a player is it?”

Skogen said he hoped the survey would show whether the increases in tuition correlate with a similar increase in student debt over the years.

UND has said it plans to raise tuition 3.7 percent for the 2014-15 school year and NDSU plans a 4.2 percent increase. On average, University System institutions expect to raise tuition 3.2 percent, except for Williston State College, which expects to raise tuition 7.1 percent.

The affordability report says that tuition and fees account for 40 percent of the cost for UND and NDSU students in 2013-14. That compares to 39 percent in 2009-10, according to data from the earliest report available. For two-year colleges, those figures were 31 percent and 29 percent respectively. The remaining costs are assumed to be room and board, books and other costs.

“I’m really anxious to see what students tell me what they think the problem is,” Skogen said. “Maybe we can come up with something that moves us forward.”

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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