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North Dakota college seeks to slowly rebuild overseas base

June 3, 2018

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Dickinson State University has good reason to celebrate its 100th anniversary, if only because the North Dakota Badlands school survived six years that included an academic scandal, decreased enrollment, mismanagement by the school foundation and an eleventh-hour bailout from the Legislature.

The geographically isolated college has rebounded with back-to-back years of growth and is hoping to keep the momentum going in part by increasing the percentage of overseas students — the very area that got the school in trouble in the first place. Some lawmakers remain leery of the idea.

Thomas Mitzel, who three years ago took over as Dickinson State president after enrollment had plummeted in half from a high of 2,800 students, has begun the recovery by building relationships with prospects in North Dakota. But he says he can’t do it solely with in-state residents.

“And I don’t know if I would want to,” Mitzel said. “If I had 2,000 students from North Dakota, I don’t know if they would want to be there. Part of the reason you go to college is to be broadened. We are really working on a global market. We want to bring in students who are going to be successful and walk across the stage and get their degrees.”

Some lawmakers are still seething over a 2012 audit report showing that Dickinson State awarded hundreds of degrees to international students who didn’t earn them, signed up students who couldn’t speak English and enrolled a handful without qualifying grades. Mitzel argues that the controversy is no longer an issue, but it still came up last year in a heated funding debate among legislators.

Don Morton, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, said the board gets “pushback from a couple of legislators” who don’t believe colleges in the state should recruit out-of-state students.

“The state Board of Higher Education is responsible for higher ed, so we will support (Mitzel),” Morton said. “Now it’s true we get our funding from the Legislature ... but we’ve got to have people step into the 21st century.”

Morton said as long as out-of-state students graduate, it’s a good deal for the state even if they don’t stick around. He points out that North Dakota did not pay for their kindergarten through 12th grade educations and as college students they provide a valuable service by working part-time jobs. And out-of-state students typically pay more; at Dickinson State it costs about $3,276 a semester for in-state residents and about $4,612 a semester for nonresidents outside Minnesota, including international students.

“Not only that, they also spend money. They buy food. They buy beer,” Morton said. “So what is the downside?”

Longtime Republican Rep. Roscoe Streyle, of Minot, who is not running for re-election but is among three finalists for a spot on the state higher education board, likes the idea of bringing students into North Dakota who can help fill the state’s 15,000 or so job openings. But Streyle says many of those students gear their degrees toward jobs outside of North Dakota and he doesn’t like giving tuition waivers — most of which go to graduate students — to people just because they’re from faraway places.

“It’s not that I don’t support diversity, I just don’t think that’s a valid reason (for waivers),” Streyle said. “I am not a big fan of waivers, but they should be used on programs that we need in North Dakota, not just because you are from a European country or you are deemed diverse.”

Enrollment at Dickinson State has grown from 1,317 students to 1,425 in the last two years. Mitzel’s goal is to be at about 1,800 students by the fall of 2021. The ratio of international students at the school was as high as 17 percent at one point and has since dropped to as low as 5 percent. Mitzel would like to reach 10 percent, but says right now the school is “kind of letting it grow organically.”

While all 11 of the state’s colleges and universities recruit out-of-state students, it is perhaps a more important market for Dickinson State because the school is located in big sky country where travelers see more cattle than people.

“The problem is we’re in a rural state and they’re in the most rural part of the rural state,” Morton said. And a majority of the state’s 10,000 high school graduates are several hundred miles away from Dickinson.

Community members say a healthy university is essential to the city’s economy and are looking at the centennial celebration as a new lease on college life. Business owners are sprucing up their windows for the 100-year party and the city is painting crosswalks that stretch from downtown to campus in the school’s blue and gray colors.

“Dickinson State University is an integral part of our community,” said Scott Decker, the Dickinson mayor. “Not only by providing the education and skilled workforce that we need, but providing our community with different cultural activities that a lot of smaller communities our size don’t get to experience.”

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