In the cascade of news about funding cuts and budget crises, it's easy to lose sight of a few good things.

It's right to be concerned about the state budget and how deep cuts will affect the poorest, most vulnerable and children. Every Montana citizen should be concerned. The programs at risk took years to build and could be shuttered in a matter of days.

Lost in the shuffle of news about the budget is that last week the U.S. Department of Education announced a seven-year, $24.5 million grant to the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to increase the number of low-income Montana students who want to attend college.

This is a continuation of a successful pilot program, and it would seem to benefit not only Montana students, but also be a boost for higher education institutions across the state.

The program, called GEAR UP, will help more than 7,000 students in 18 different communities, including Montana's seven tribal reservations. 

The idea is pretty simple: Make sure students in those communities are ready for college, and help make it easier to apply.

Many of the students who would be part of this program would be first-generation college students. In other words, this would help families who haven't had family members go to college. That's important because education is a family value, and a college degree can help families overcome generational poverty by providing more opportunities and higher pay.

The grant will continue to provide free ACT testing to all Montana's high-school juniors (that's approximately 10,000 per year). This does two very important things. 

First, it provides students with a standardized and recognized test score that is often a prerequisite of college admission. This helps those students make the first step, even if they ultimately choose not to attend college.

Secondly, the standardized test results also help educators focus on improving the student's skills. With the ACT results, teachers can help students who struggle in a subject area improve during their senior year so that when it is time for college, these students have a better chance at academic success.

"It also gives schools a course pattern score comparison with the rest of the state providing actionable data to address curriculum gaps and shortcomings," said John Cech, the Deputy Commissioner for Higher Education.

Since the pilot program began, Montana has shown a 57 percent increase in the number of students who have taken the ACT. 

Finally, the grant will help continue a program that truly supports the students and their families overcome the daunting and sometimes intimidating process of going to college.

For example, the grant also supports "College Application Week" where the state's public, private and tribal colleges waive the application fees in order to promote access and awareness. Last year, Cech reported that more than 3,800 applications came in from more than 139 high schools last year (hint: College Application Week this year is Nov. 6 through Nov. 10).

The program also created a virtual college tours and a FAFSA (financial aid form) completion night. 

We're glad to see this important program continue and expand to reach even more students. 

Politicians in the state are fond of talking about keeping the best and the brightest at home in our Montana workforce. This is one of the ways in which we can promote our students as well as our own excellent system of higher education.

We also think this program and the grant is a great example of a government programming and spending that truly impacts local communities and residents. Montana continues to compete in a global economy and so we need to focus on training and developing the next generation of leaders as a "Made in Montana" product.

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