FARGO - State Board of Higher Education officials and university presidents discussed what's affecting higher education in North Dakota at a retreat Thursday, with some saying the board needs to work on student retention, affordability and collaboration with grade schools.

Outgoing Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said the problem isn't getting high school graduates into North Dakota colleges, but rather in getting them to graduate once they have entered a university.

"We have exceptional retention rates that first year, but then they drop off," he said.

The North Dakota University System's strategic plan, released in October, outlines a variety of issues and goals the board wants to address in the coming years, including improving retention, using nontraditional teaching materials, enhancing the reputation of research universities, increasing collaboration and strengthening the system as a whole.

The group spent a significant amount of time discussing affordability and graduation rates.

At the University of North Dakota alone, only 26 percent of students who began their college career in 2010 graduated in four years, up four percent from those who began in 2001, according to data from UND's Office of Institutional Research, but fall-to-fall retention rates for full-time first-year students was 80 percent for the 2013 cohort, up five percent from the year prior.

But UND President Robert Kelley said data points like four-year graduation rates aren't always the best measure of an institution's success, as some students flourish when they have the flexibility to go at their own pace.

"I think we have to be very cautions as an integrated system about incentivizing expectations that are imposed upon the system that may be artificial," he said.

Board member Don Morton said the system and SBHE needs to work harder to give value to individual college campuses.

"There's got to be more collaboration, and there's got to be more trust," he said.

The group also discussed the possibility of offering severely reduced or free tuition to nonresident students in order to address the state's workforce needs.

The number of nonresident students enrolled at all 11 NDUS institutions has increased from a little more than 17,000 in the fall of 2010 to 21,710 in the fall of 2014.

"If you make them equal, to cover the expenditures, something has to go up," Kelley said.

Skogen said incoming Chancellor Mark Hagerott, who starts his job next week, should look into developing tuition models, while Morton stressed the system and board should support individual campuses more thoroughly.

"If we're good, why not be better, and if we're better, why not be the best?" Morton asked.

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