MISSOULA -- How to motivate students’ progress toward a college degree -- and whether a student who fails to achieve a degree should be required to repay free federal grants – surfaced as potential hot-potato issues Friday for the Montana Board of Regents.
The board wrapped up its November agenda at the University of Montana in a meeting that covered everything from veteran outreach programs to Native American retention efforts to how to make Montana campuses more energy efficient.
Clayton Christian, the state’s commissioner of higher education, opened the accountability debate by noting that other states are working to create incentives to coax students through the university system in a reasonable amount of time.
Exactly what’s reasonable wasn’t determined, nor were the incentives – or possible penalties – fully named, but the debate emerged as a new issue the regents will be looking to resolve in the months ahead.
“Do we put incentives out there to convince students to complete their degree in four years, or do we increase fees if students take longer than four years?” Christian said. “How do we help students confine this to four years? It’s the best thing for them, and it’s the best thing for us.”
The issue is closely tied to affordability and financial aid, and regents already have formed an Affordability Task Force to look at the matter on a deeper level.
Adam Cook, a student at Montana Tech and a member of the student Senate, was appointed to the new task force. Regent Todd Buchanan of Billings invited Cook to address the board Friday.
He's in favor of requiring students to pay back grants if they don't graduate. He argued that the status quo treats the grant as "free money" provided by taxpayers to the university to help cover the student’s education.
“As the system is now, there’s nothing to stop a student who is three years or four years into his degree path from dropping out,” Cook said. “I’m suggesting we attach the student to that debt. It’s his debt and he owns it until he graduates school, at which point he’s absolved of that debt.”
Cook said roughly 30 percent of grant recipients complete their degree. The other 70 percent, he suggested, fail to do so. He believes the latter group should be accountable for repaying the grants they accept in college so the money is available to others who intend to earn a degree.
“That money could go to other students,” Cook said. “It reduces the gamble. You’re getting 100 percent return on the investment.”
Regent Pat Williams voiced concern with the proposal. He said family issues, not motivation, sometimes prevent a student from graduating.
Punishing the student financially for not getting a degree, he said, was a steep penalty.
“I understand the value of accountability among students, but there are a lot of moving pieces in loans and grants that are beyond a student’s control,” Williams said. “Graduation is sometimes beyond a student’s control and that penalty is pretty high.”
Williams also argued that by investing in a student’s education, the government hopes that the student will succeed and pay back into the system. It’s a gamble, he admitted, but education was worth the risk and the student wasn’t always at fault.
Ron Muffick, director of student financial services with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the university system is already experimenting with a new incentive program.
The effort looks to reward full-time, first-year Montana freshmen who get good grades with a $1,000 grant in hopes of keeping them on a timely degree path. This year, 697 students qualified for the program.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about incentivizing financial aid,” Muffick said. “We determined we’d award these $1,000 grants to these 697 students in the spring if they complete satisfactory academic progress in the fall. We hope it will reduce their student loan debt and help them progress toward a degree.”
Keeping on the issue of money, Muffick said the state invited Montana’s public colleges and universities to submit proposals for funding to begin financial-literacy programs.
Around 64 percent of Montana students are borrowing more than $25,000 to complete college. At two-year schools, 71 percent of students are borrowing more than $18,000 to obtain their associate's degree.
The new program looks to make students more aware of the costs of borrowing money. It aims to better inform them of their responsibilities in paying back their loans.
However, just eight schools answered the call for proposals and each received funding. Muffick said the state has roughly $290,000 to award to schools for financial-literacy programs.
“Campuses have different ideas on how to approach the issue,” he said. “Next summer, we can sit down with each campus and look at what worked and how to apply it to other campuses to achieve a consistent theme and a coordinated approach.”