Proposed Budget Increases University Students’ Financial Burden

After a ten-year tuition freeze designed to balance out the level of funding between the state and students, the governor of Montana is proposing a budget $25.5 million short of what the Montana University System requested. This raises concerns by the university and educators of gaps in funding that could lead to higher tuition and more student debt.

With that budget proposal, the State of Montana, which ranks 48th in the nation for funding per student, would be funding students at less than 75 percent of the national average. The state has a history of cutting education spending, having reduced appropriations per student by 38 percent between 1992 and 2005. That forced the university to raise tuition to make up the deficit. The increase in tuition led to declining enrollment and higher student debt, which forced the state to initiate a tuition freeze starting in 2006.

Budget Proposal Shifts Burden to Students

The tuition freeze, which is to run through 2017, was an attempt to bring the amount of funding provided by the state and students into balance, which, according to officials, has been nearly achieved. It has been suggested that the latest budget proposal would reverse that progress and restart the cycle of higher tuition costs, leading to lower enrollment and higher student debt. When tuition costs are out of balance with state funding, it invariably forces students into one of three circumstances: to stay in school longer, taking fewer credits; or taking on more debt to manage higher college expenses; or dropping out of school – any one of which limits their economic contribution to their community.

The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education (OCHE) is asking the legislature to fund the $25.5 million it needs to maintain the funding balance between state appropriations and tuition costs, or look for lower enrollment numbers. Under current circumstances, with current revenue and flat enrollment in 2017, tuition costs would need to be increased by $1,059 per year. A further budget decrease would cause that number to go up.

An increase in tuition costs will hurt middle and lower income students the most as they will need to take on more student debt to stay in school. OCHE has been making its case to legislators who can approve its request or adopt the governor’s budget proposal or keep the current budget for another year.

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