Favors for Northern Neighbors

In effort to fill empty seats, some community colleges in northern border states offer in-state tuition to Canadian residents.
June 26, 2009

At a growing number of community colleges along the United States-Canada border, the term “in-state tuition” is losing its original meaning.

Last month, the Montana University System’s Board of Regents gave Miles Community College, located in the rural eastern half of the state, permission to grant nearby residents of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in-state tuition on a two-year trial basis. Residents of the neighboring states of Wyoming, North and South Dakota are also being offered the same tuition discount at the Montana institution and, using last year’s figures, will only pay $100 per credit hour instead of the normal out-of-state rate of $193.

Though Miles is the first community college in Montana to make such an offer to Canadian residents, similar tuition discounts are becoming commonplace at many institutions in sparely populated northern border states. Like most of their peers who have done the same, officials at Miles believe that attracting out-of-state students with discounted tuition can only help their institution in tough economic times. They also point out that – with unemployment at a record low in the upper Great Plains, compared to the rest of the country – their facilities are underutilized and they have classroom space to spare.

“This was an easy sell for us,” said Darren Pitcher, dean of student services at Miles and architect of the new tuition plan. “It won’t cost us any more to teach these students. We’re already turning the heat and lights on. We just need to fill the seats. If we can fill them at our normal asking price, then there’s no loss for us at the moment.”

Miles’ written proposal for expanding in-state tuition beyond its borders notes that the college is already operating at 50 percent classroom capacity. Occupancy in its residence halls, the proposal finds, is higher -- nearly 85 percent. An analysis within the document states that Miles can handle enrollment growth with minimal change to capital and operating costs until its enrollment reaches 500 full-time students.

Miles can attract up to 60 more out-of-state students, Pitcher projected, and their per-student cost will remain the same as its per-student cost for in-state residents. Only if the program proves too successful -- at which point the college would be paying more to educate non-Montanans -- would it reconsider the tuition offer, he said.

“Once the seats are full, it becomes a money-losing prospect, but only then.” said Pitcher, adding that he only expects 40 extra out-of-state students, at most, to enroll at Miles during these two trial years. “Still, in the meantime, these students will also spend extra money on auxiliaries, such as in their dorms, the cafeteria and at the bookstore. It’ll help us.”

At least for officials at Miles, the pitch to give Canadian residents of Saskatchewan in-state tuition was the easy one. It was the second offer -- to give residents of Wyoming, North and South Dakota the same discount -- that got heated.

“We cross the border so much up here that Canadians have almost always been included in what we do,” Pitcher said. “It wasn’t much of an issue. They bring their own financial aid from Canada, and we’ve had a lot of success transferring credits back and forth. With some of our neighboring states, there was some concern. But, for example, a lot of our students were enrolling in North Dakota colleges because it was a cheaper option for them, by almost $2,000. Some colleges in North Dakota were offering our students [a discount], but we weren’t returning the favor. Now, I think what we’ve done is level the playing field a bit.”

One such competing North Dakota community college, Minot State University at Bottineau -- only about 40 miles from the Canadian border -- has been offering in-state tuition to Canadian students for five years. If Bottineau's recent history is any indication, officials from Miles should not expect Canadian students to come beating down their doors.

Ken Grosz, campus dean at Bottineau, said only 40 of the college's 655 students last semester were from Canada. Unlike Miles, Bottineau offers in-state tuition to all Canadian residents, not just those from specific provinces. Those from contiguous states receive tuition that is 125 percent of in-state tuition, while all others are charged 150 percent of in-state tuition.

“If you have the capacity to spare, why not fill it?” Grosz asked. “It’s a marketing strategy. If we were turning away students, at that point and by still charging in-state tuition, it would be a loss. Now, we’ve got the capacity and, it’s not costing us any more.”

In five years of existence, Grosz said, the in-state tuition offer has increased the college’s “visibility” in Canada. He also noted that it has stabilized its Canadian enrollment, making these international students a predictable factor in annual enrollment projections.

Like officials in Montana, Grosz cites the decreasing number of high school graduates in rural part of his state for spurring this tuition marketing strategy. Still, without Bottineau's Canadian students, he argued, local residents would be bearing a greater cost.

“Tuition has gone up since we started offering in-state tuition to Canadians,” said Grosz, noting that tuition makes up nearly 25 percent of the college’s operating budget. “Still, without these students, tuition would have gone up even more.”

Further east, in Maine, students from the neighboring Canadian province of New Brunswick receive in-state tuition on a space-available basis at any of its seven community colleges. Although the discount was originally offered only at the state’s northernmost two community colleges, the rest of the state’s two-year institutions recently extended it as part of an agreement that grants Maine residents in-country tuition to any of the 11 community colleges in the New Brunswick Community College Network.

Helen Pelletier, Maine Community College System spokeswoman, said the number of Canadian students in the state has remained relatively static in recent years but that she expects it to grow in the near future as a result of the agreement. Unlike in Montana and North Dakota, Pelletier said the rationale for the tuition discount was not to fill seats – the system is experiencing an enrollment boom like most community colleges around the country – but to improve the exchange of students and ideas between the already-close state and province.

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David Moltz

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