FARGO, N.D. — Some National Guard students attending North Dakota colleges on ROTC scholarships are scrambling to find ways to stay in school after the state Guard announced it could no longer fund its share of the program.
The students were expecting free tuition that for years has been covered by a combination of federal and state funds. Lee Bushaw, the Guard's education services officer, said the state no longer has enough money to cover a shortfall created by both tuition increases and a decline in federal support. Students could be out as much as $5,000 for the spring semester.
"We kept plugging the holes that were made by the federal government," Bushaw said. "Now we can't fix it."
Kenneth Hardy, chief of education services for the U.S. Army National Guard, said in the last fiscal year about 30,000 soldiers nationally have received money from their states to supplement their federal payments from both a tuition assistance program and the GI Bill. He said the state funding allows soldiers to take more classes and earn their degree more quickly.
Hardy and Bushaw said it's impossible to tell if other states are having similar issues because each has their own program and separate rules on applying the money.
The cutback in North Dakota's tuition assistance hits ROTC scholarship students the hardest because the state tuition assistance program is their primary source of funding. Ryan Schulz, a longtime ROTC recruiter who now works in that capacity at North Dakota State University, said students were shocked to get a letter this fall informing them of the changes for the next semester.
"Please know that those decisions were not made lightly, it simply came down to a reduction of funds in the state budget," the letter read.
The ROTC changes affect about 60 undergraduate cadets and 35 graduate students, most of whom attend North Dakota State.
"Everyone is figuring out what to do for a job next semester and how they are going to pay the rent," Schulz said.
Guard leaders would not release names of students, citing privacy concerns. Madison Rodgers, a North Dakota State student who on Tuesday lost his bid to get elected to the state House, is acting as liaison for the ROTC members because he said they don't want to comment publicly.
Rodgers said most of students were at the top of their high school classes and are being groomed to become officers and leaders in the military. He said many told him they can't afford to make up the loss and some are looking to transfer across the river to a college in Minnesota, which has paid full tuition for cadets.
The program contract, which Rodgers said is about an inch thick and loaded with legal jargon, warns that the payments are subject to the state's financial health. However, Rodgers said none of the students view it that way and Bushaw acknowledged the Guard "advertised and explained" that 100 percent of tuition would be paid.
"You don't see on any of the National Guard posters that you are going to get your school paid for — 'maybe,' " Rodgers said. "No one reads the fine print, especially 17- and 18-year-olds who have never dealt with a contract in their lives."
Bushaw said the decrease in federal coverage is due mainly to a 2014 Defense Department determination that students could not use funding from both the GI Bill and Federal Tuition Assistance program for the same course because it's a duplication of benefits.
"I don't understand why soldiers and airmen weren't screaming across the country about that," Bushaw said. "I knew why they weren't screaming in North Dakota, because we kept fixing it."
The Guard's general fund appropriation for the 2017-19 biennium was $27.9 million, including just over $3 million for the Tuition and Enlistment Compensation program. North Dakota Sen. Ray Holmberg, who chairs the state Senate's budget writing committee, said the Guard budget has gone up nearly 9 percent since the Sept. 11 attacks, during which time tuition at North Dakota State rose by 41 percent.
The Guard is taking its case to the state Emergency Commission on Nov. 19, hoping to get the money for next semester. Mike Nowatzki, spokesman for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, declined to comment on whether he thought the commission would be receptive.
"The governor understands that this is the Guard's top priority and No. 1 recruiting tool and it's critical to maintaining the Guard's strength in North Dakota," Nowatzki said.
Schulz said the abrupt change will hurt recruiting, even if the problem is fixed in the next legislative session
Holmberg questioned whether the Guard was setting the right priorities with its funding, while at the same time acknowledging that tuition increases are beyond both the Guard's and Legislature's control. Even so, he said lawmakers "need to find a mechanism to make sure 100 percent equals 100 percent."