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Survey: ND students spending loans on basics

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Though more North Dakota students borrow money than their counterparts in many other states, most appear to be spending their student loans on basic needs, according to a new survey.

Many said that, after paying for tuition, they used the loans to pay for food, rent, childcare and medical bills. Some repaid loans.

The North Dakota Student Association presented its survey results to the State Board of Higher Education recently, saying they bolster the group's argument that the state should provide more funds for needs-based scholarships.

"We were surprised by this answer, but not 100 percent surprised," Conner Swanson, the student association president, told board members.

More than 1,500 North Dakota University System students took the unscientific survey, though the number who answered all the questions varied. Sixty percent had borrowed money to fund their education in the 2013-14 academic year. Fifty-six percent of those with loans said they ended up borrowing more than needed for expenses directly related to education.

Because many did not choose standard multiple choices provided -- they answered "other" -- it's unclear exactly how many used the money for food or rent. The survey gave a sample of more than 100 answers in which many answered food or rent.

State funding

According to the Project on Student Debt, North Dakota students are some of the most indebted in the country.

Eighty-three percent of the class of 2011 graduated with some form of debt in North Dakota, the most of any state that year. South Dakota was No. 2 with 76 percent and Minnesota was No. 5 with 71 percent. Data was not available for North Dakota in more recent years.

In April, Interim University System Chancellor Larry Skogen said he hoped the survey would shed light on how students were spending their money.

Since the 2003-04 school year, the annual cost to attend the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University, state universities with the largest enrollment, has increased by 60.9 percent to $18,800 in 2013-14, according to an University System report. The cost includes tuition, room and board, books and other costs.

Swanson said that, because of the survey results, the student association plans to support a bill from Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, to increase state funding for needs-based scholarships from $21 million to $31 million. "It they're getting more loans back, we'd rather they get them in scholarships and grants and use that money on stuff, rather than loans."

Flakoll said his bill is meant to help students whose parents make too much for them to qualify for grants but not enough to put them through college.

"I talked to a lot of students and families who are just looking for something to melt away barriers to college," he said. "If we can incentivize more to go on to college and help take away the financial barrier, we certainly have a lot of jobs for them when they're done with college."

But students were split on the issue of affordability according to the survey, with 34 percent responding that tuition was affordable, 38 percent responding that it wasn't and 28 percent responding "maybe."