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North Dakota National Guard working to restore tuition program for spring semester

GRAND FORKS — North Dakota National Guard leaders are working to restore funding for their tuition assistance program, which provides scholarships to ROTC students and soldiers across the state.

The Guard does not have enough money in its budget to pay for student tuition for the upcoming spring semester, but the organization is actively trying to solve the issue, National Guard Adjutant Gen. Alan Dohrmann said.

The state military branch needs about $560,000 to fund the program for the rest of the biennium, Dohrmann said. The organization will ask the state’s Emergency Commission on Monday for permission to move $450,000 of its budget to the tuition assistance program. The additional $110,000 would have to come out of the state’s contingency fund, state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said Tuesday, Nov. 13.

The commission is made up of state legislative leaders, as well as the governor and secretary of state. Gov. Doug Burgum chairs the commission.

The Guard tracks its tuition assistance funding every semester, Dohrmann said. At the end of the spring semester, the Guard realized it was “running low” on funds to make it through the end of the biennium, he said. Guard staff let students know then it would be reducing the amount of student fees it could pay.

Dohrmann said they thought there was an improvement in the budget, but an increase in recruits, coupled with an uptick in students taking summer classes, put additional stress on the program.

“When we reviewed it again before the start of fall semester, we realized were short (on money),” he said.

The crux of the issue has to do with tuition assistance funding at a state and federal level, Dohrmann said.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense determined students could not use funding from both the GI Bill and Federal Tuition Assistance program for the same semester because it's a duplication of benefits, Dohrmann said. That meant the Guard had to be more dependent on its state tuition assistance program in the midst of increased tuition costs and a stagnant state budget.

The tuition assistance program not only helps ROTC students, but also graduate and incoming students who volunteered for the Guard.

The Guard is attempting to get the DOD to change its determination, Dohrmann said, adding the rule about the federal assistance hasn’t changed, just its interpretation.

The Emergency Commission is allowed to use up to $600,000 each biennium to fund emergency or unforeseen circumstances, Holmberg said.

“I think one of the things the Legislature needs to do during the next session is make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Holmberg said he would be supportive of the contingency fund being used to help the Guard. Students are “sold” on the fact that 100 percent of their tuition will be paid for through the Guard, he said.

However, the tuition assistance program is contingent on the funds available, and that needs to be made clearer, he noted.

Dohrmann noted that the organization is committed to paying 100 percent of tuition and fees for students who volunteer for the Guard, so long as they have the funds.

“We should do what we can to allow the program to continue fully funded (for) this biennium, and then the next Legislature has to look at the whole question again,” Holmberg said.

The Guard “should have done a better job” when speaking to ROTC students about the situation and what was being done to hopefully solve the issue, Dohrmann acknowledged.

“While we wanted to give our students fair warning … we should have done a better job of letting them know all of the efforts to try to bring this program back to (being) fully funded,” he said.

Burgum’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, said it’s unknown what the commission will do, but Burgum understands the importance of the program for the Guard.

“The governor realizes that this is the North Dakota National Guard’s No. 1 recruiting tool and its top priority,” Nowatzki said. “It’s key to maintaining the Guard’s strength in the state.”

Dohrmann said Burgum reached out to him and the Guard “almost immediately,” and other commission members have also contacted the organization about the issue and how it can be solved.

“(The elected officials) have been very interested, very supportive,” Dohrmann said.

The $450,000 the Guard is asking to move typically would be used at the end of the biennium for deferred maintenance for the organization’s approximately 300 buildings across the state, Dohrmann said.

“We’re going to have to assume some risk this year by using this money for tuition assistance instead of maintenance,” he said.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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