FARGO - International students are a boon to colleges in part because they tend to pay full out-of-state tuition, college leaders often say.

But close to 20 percent of international students attending North Dakota colleges last year received a full tuition waiver, compared with less than 4 percent of in-state students -- a statistic that caused a state lawmaker to butt heads with members of the State Board of Higher Education on Wednesday.

"We're waiving a lot of tuition for international students, but then not doing it for our own," said Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, a member of the Legislature's Higher Education Committee. "It just seems like it's the wrong direction. We're just simply trying to fill seats, but that shouldn't be our mission."

The new report was presented at a rare joint meeting of the legislative committee and the higher education board, which was held at North Dakota State University on Wednesday.

North Dakotans received half of all waivers in 2014-15, while international students received 18 percent, the report said. Of full-tuition waivers, about 46 percent went to North Dakotans, while 30 percent went to international students. The remainder went to students from other states.

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Board members rushed to defend the importance of diversity on campus.

"Whether it's international, whether it's just people from other states, I think there's intrinsic value in having people of a variety of backgrounds at our colleges," said member Kari Reichert.

Faculty Adviser Eric Murphy noted that graduate students receive many of the waivers, "which, frankly, is the cost of doing business," he said. "That's what drives our research programs. That's what drives bringing in federal dollars in research grants."

Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, told MPR News last month that schools have a financial incentive to recruit international students because two-thirds of them pay their own way.

Here, the statistic falls just a little short of that estimate. In North Dakota last year, about 58 percent of international students did not have a tuition waiver.

The report appears to contradict what NDSU President Dean Bresciani told Chancellor Mark Hagerott last month in an email, which is that international students come "fully funded." The email was regarding his recruiting trip to India. Though he defended Bresciani's recruiting efforts, Hagerott criticized the $8,300 business-class airfare the president took on the trip, calling it an "embarrassment."

The legislative committee and higher education board also heard reports on North Dakota University System scholarships, tuition costs, student debt and retention rates.

One report showed that North Dakota's four-year schools have consistently performed below the national average in retention.

Richard Rothaus, interim vice chancellor of academic and student affairs, said he found this to be the "most concerning" statistic.

"We've held steady, which shows there's no easy fix," he said. "It's not that someone had a bad idea, or there was a budget crisis or scandal. It shows there's something much more complicated going on that leads to these retention rates."

NDUS Chief Financial Officer Tammy Dolan also presented the newly released 2016 Student Affordability Report to the lawmakers, which compared costs here to costs in other state systems.

For four-year schools, tuition and housing cost less than at regional peers in 2015-16, the report showed. That was not the case at two-year schools, though, where both cost more than the regional average.

States used for comparison were: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, objected to the inclusion of far-away states in the report.

"I think it'd be better if we had real comparisons of where the students actually go," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Grace Lyden at (701) 241-5502