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State Board of Higher Education may let universities set application fees

Casey Ryan

BISMARCK — Application fees can rack up quickly for prospective students.

It’s $40 here, $25 there, $35 that way.

Students applying to a school within the North Dakota University System are generally required to pay a $35 application fee, which goes to the university to which the person applies. That current $35 cost is the same no matter if a person is applying to a large school or a smaller, two-year institution. But the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education may soon eliminate its across-the-board fee, instead allowing universities to set their own rates.

The change, which was moved forward by the State Board’s Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 21, would allow universities to leave the fee rate the same or set it higher or lower.

Application fees are generally used to support enrollment and admission functions within a university, including salaries, benefits and operating expenses.

For some schools, potential changes could affect some funding earned from those application fees. Systemwide annual net application fee revenues averaged $1.5 million a year over the past three years. Some schools make around $14,000 a year on application fees. Meanwhile, the state’s larger universities, the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State, receive on average $370,000 a year in application fees — enough money to pay for the salaries of some of the schools’ presidents. Most schools see somewhere in between those numbers.

The proposed changes make the application fee and amount discretionary, at the determination of the institutional president. Institutions would be required to report application fees to the SBHE annually when tuition rates are approved.

But opinions are mixed on the topic.

“Supporters strongly believe the decision to charge an application fee or not should be made at the campus level,” Tammy Dolan, vice chancellor for administrative affairs, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “(This proposal) would allow them to better adapt to their changing marketing and recruiting environment.”

Meanwhile, Dolan said those in opposition worried the move would increase competition between institutions. Additionally, they feel the change could lead to “price shopping for the lowest application fee and confusion for students,” according to an SBHE document. Those in opposition also worry that the change could give an unfair advantage to larger institutions that might have the financial resources to replace the lost application fee dollars if the fees were to be eliminated or reduced, according to Dolan.

An SBHE document states that Bismarck State College, Lake Region State College and Valley City State University oppose the change, while the rest of the universities are supportive of the switch to university control.

The board’s general counsel says the change would be against its legal advice. North Dakota Century Code allocates the authority to set institutional tuition and fees to the SBHE. Eric Olson, the board’s attorney, said there are other ways to give the campuses discretion to set their application fees, but he cannot advise the committee or the Board to approve the change as written.

Board member Casey Ryan moved to approve the change in the committee Tuesday, noting, while he appreciates Olson’s concerns, the board often gets itself tied up in “too many rules and logic goes out the window.”

“Look at the number of months that have been spent talking about should or shouldn’t you charge a $35 fee,” he said, referring to the back and forth this idea has had in other campus committees. “Every college and university is different. Presidents need to make the decision.”

Retha Mattern, staff adviser for the state board, questioned what position the campuses and the university system would be in if the fee were changed, potentially impacting a source of unappropriated revenue, especially for smaller schools.

Dolan said it would be up to the institutions to figure out how to replace those funds or cover those dollars at an institutional level. The intent, she said, would not be to go back to the Legislature to ask for an increase in appropriations because of this.

The committee, which currently includes two voting members (Ryan and Tim Mihalick), voted unanimously to move the discussion forward to the next board meeting Jan. 28.