Commissioner: New funding saves big college tuition hike

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KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — Student tuition at Montana universities and colleges would have risen 20 percent over the next two years if state lawmakers had not allowed for another tuition freeze by increasing the university system's funding, the state's higher education commissioner said Thursday.

The Montana Board of Regents will vote on the new two-year tuition freeze during its meeting in Kalispell, which began Thursday and continues Friday. The regents have frozen the cost of in-state student tuition for the last four years at four-year institutions and for eight years at two-year institutions.

The freeze is key to keeping the higher education affordable for Montana residents, but spending can't be frozen with increasing costs, said Commissioner Clayton Christian.

The Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock this spring approved an increase of more than $26 million in the 2016-2017 state budget, which is enough to keep tuition levels the same for students who are Montana residents, Christian said. Out-of-state students' tuition will rise by up to 3 percent next year, depending on the school, and up to 5 percent in 2017, under the plan.

The additional funding allows the university system "to increase expenditures at an adequate level, but buys down what would have been a tuition increase," Christian said.

That funding increase, along with additional funding for research, initiatives and capital projects makes it the second-largest overall increase the university system has seen, he said.

However, the funding per student going to colleges and universities is less than the level spent in the early 1990s, when adjusted for inflation, Regent William Johnstone said. There also will be less need-based financial aid available for poor students, Christian said.

Some Montana schools are facing budget shortfalls as university system enrollment has decreased for three straight years. The decline is due in part to fewer high school graduates and in part to the end of the recession: Some students enrolled during the recession to improve their chances of finding a job, but now there are more jobs available in the improving economy, said Deputy Commissioner Tyler Trevor.

The number of in-state students dropped from 29,968 last year to 28,755 this year. However, the number of out-of-state students, who pay more in tuition, rose by 462 this year to 9,978.

"Nonresident students have steadily increased and are an important part of our business model," Trevor said.

Another priority the university system has set is in retaining students and helping them complete their education. Part of the funding for individual schools will be performance-based and dependent on how well they do in student retention and completion.

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