(Originally in the High Plains Reader of May 4, 2006, as the guest editorial.)

Can’t We Do Better?

By Ryan Gustafson
Guest Editorial

College is nearly out and students around the state will return home for the summer. Thoughts of next year and the paperwork to come will be the furthest thing from their minds as they contemplate how best to spend their summer vacation.

The furthest thing from the minds of many of our elected officials, however, is how to make college affordable and make it possible for young people to stay in North Dakota after graduating.

A quick review of the rampant hypocrisy surrounding the education debate:

Can’t we do better?

A good government cares for its people. It provides opportunities and invests in education as a key to future strength. A good government promotes entrepreneurs and responsible economic development.

Instead the state legislature promoted tax cuts for oil companies, denied comprehensive renewable energy legislation, and told young North Dakotans to take a hike.
And hike they will — right into Minnesota. Or anywhere that provides the kind of good jobs and wages needed to pay off loans.

The Minneapolis Star reported a while back that if the ratio between minimum wage and college tuition were the same now as it was back then, the minimum wage would be $22 an hour.

To be clear, it’s not a matter of “convincing” students to stay here. Graduates who want to leave North Dakota will leave no matter what we do. There’s a world of difference between convincing grads to stay here and making it possible to stay for those who want to remain.

Some people would call these types of programs handouts and a waste of money. These are the same people who don’t bat an eye when the state gives away millions of dollars of tax revenue in the form of exemptions and incentives for large companies — companies already earning record profits, who leave the state at the drop of the hat if politicians for a moment stop sucking up to them.

So how can the state make college affordable? What’s the answer?

Fully funding college education according to the state’s constitutional obligations would be a good start, to prevent further tuition increases.

Putting an end to the double-taxing of students (once through income, once through student loans) would also be a good start, to make student loans affordable.

Promoting entrepreneurship in-state would also help. Create business with local talent, instead of begging for it from out-of-state. Stop throwing fistfuls of money at disreputable companies like WebSmart and invest directly in North Dakota instead–in local companies with an interest in their community.

Financial incentives are also an option, and many different people have suggested a variety of plans to provide college grads the opportunity to stay in the state.

North Dakotans are generally a strong, independent lot, but we also value our communities. We recognize that we all do better when we all do better. Common sense tells us our government ought to be helping us succeed, not making it more difficult.

Students are not piggy banks. It’s time to quit treating them like they are.

(Gustafson, former intern at HPR, graduated from Concordia College in 2005. He works for the North Dakota Progressive Coalition and is running for the State Legislature in Bismarck. He operates a blog at FlickertailJournal.com.)