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Gazette Opinion

The Montana Board of Regents will meet May 28-29 in Great Falls to consider how the University System should deal with the decisions of the Montana Legislature. Tuition increases and spending cuts are expected at all campuses.

As of last week, Chancellor Ron Sexton expected Montana State University-Billings to propose to increase its tuition 10 percent to 12 percent in each year of the biennium.

Because the first year's tuition increase would replace a tuition surcharge in place this year, MSU-Billings student costs would go up less this fall than they would for the fall of 2005. This year, total annual tuition and fees for a full-time resident student at MSU-Billings are about $4,000. With a 12 percent tuition increase, tuition and fees would total $4,200 for the academic year beginning this fall and $4,600 for fall 2004.

Even with a 12-percent tuition increase, MSU-Billings will be left with "a fairly substantial budget deficit" for the coming academic year, Sexton said.

STUDENT AID • Percentage of MSU-Billings students receiving financial aid this year: 64.

• Average educational debt for 2001 MSU-Billings grads: $17,000.

• Average educational debt for 1996 MSU-Billings grads: $11,000.

In the past decade, the Legislature has refused to put more money into higher education as costs and student numbers have increased. Cost increases have been covered mostly by tuition increases. Student debt loads have grown.

But so have student scholarships. So far, MSU-Billings has awarded $450,000 in scholarships for the upcoming academic year. The Billings campus as well as those in Bozeman and Missoula have increased their private scholarship funds over the past five years.

Students worried about the affordability of Montana universities should consult the financial aid office before giving up on a college dream.

The average Montana college student comes from a family with lower income than the average for other states. The mission of the state universities is making higher education affordable for Montana residents.

By themselves, two years of double-digit tuition increases would give many Montana families pause. But the big picture is much more daunting: Tuition and mandatory fees at Montana universities have already doubled in the past decade.

There is a national trend toward lessening states' share of support for public higher education. It's been called "privatizing" public colleges. Montana is ahead of the curve, shifting more of the costs of public higher education institutions to students and families.

What can be done?

Changing this trend would require a major shift in state executive and legislative philosophy. Legislators and the governor would have to raise more state revenue and allocate more of it to the universities.

Political change will take time - if it happens at all.

Meanwhile, private individuals and businesses that recognize the value of higher education must step up to help. New partnerships and collaboration between colleges and employers will be mutually beneficial. Business has a vital interest in providing quality education to the Montana work force.

For many Montanans, private support will make the difference between graduating or never entering a public university.