After months of speculation on the impact of budget cuts to the Montana University System, Billings has the lowest recommended tuition and fee increase in the state.
MUS officials recommended each public university increase tuition and fee costs to help fill an $18.8 million dollar systemwide gap.
"We will continue to advocate as strongly as we can for state funding in the future, but it would be irresponsible for us to just assume that state funding will continue to rise at the level it has in Montana," MUS spokesman Kevin McRae said Thursday after a public conference call with regents announcing tuition recommendations.
"Tuition revenue is going to be much more important than it has been over the last 10 years."
Montana State University Billings is the only school that doesn't have a recommended tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students next school year, and its 1.5 percent recommended increase for the year after is the smallest of any school that year.
City College was the only two-year school to have no recommended increase for the next two years; all other schools would see hikes of between 3 and 4 percent each of the next two years.
MSUB has struggled with declining enrollment for several years, which has resulted in less per-student budget money from the state. Total on-campus resident students and total full-time students have dropped more than 22 percent since 2012.
Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian said campuses must not lose sight of prioritizing programs — evaluating academic fields' value to a campus — despite tuition increases. Regent Bill Johnstone concurred, especially for "campuses that are more challenged."
"I hope that the board is committed to that, and the commissioner and campuses are committed to moving forward on that program prioritization initiative as urgently as possible," Johnstone said.
At the University of Montana, faculty members have argued that prioritization will result in the elimination of academic programs and further layoffs. The school laid off about 200 full-time positions last year amid enrollment and budget struggles.
UM and MSUB are the only schools projected to have less tuition revenue next year, based on the increases.
Both UM and Montana State University are in line for increases over the next two years, raising in-state undergraduate tuition to $7,047 next school year and $7,212 the year after.
UM has a two-tiered system where freshmen and sophomores pay less than upperclassmen. Next year's proposed hike is a 13 percent tuition increase for lower-paying residents at UM and a 5.2 percent increase for higher-paying residents. MSU students could see a 2.3 percent increase.
Montana State University Northern, Montana Tech and the University of Montana Western also have two-tiered systems where younger students face steeper hikes than upperclassmen.
Adjusted for inflation, in-state average costs in Montana have increased from $5,677 in 2004-2005 to $6,409 this year — third-lowest in the U.S. during that time.
Non-resident fees would increase at a steeper rate than resident fees at almost every campus; MSUB's undergraduate costs would bump up 2.7 percent next year and 2.8 percent the year after.