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Given recent news reports, you might not know we are in the middle of a four-year tuition freeze at most state colleges and universities. The Montana University System received some press coverage a couple of weeks ago for discussing what might happen if the state were to reduce college and university funding in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.

Discussing potential issues and possible solutions is only prudent. Unfortunately, sometimes even the fact that a discussion occurred makes news. In this case, one of the what-ifs that made the news was the subject of tuition.

For most of the last 25 years, the state has steadily reduced state-funded appropriations (in constant dollars) per student, so the regents routinely consider whether it will be necessary to make up the difference. Fortunately, with strong support from the governor and the Legislature, through the College Affordability Plan, the Montana Board of Regents has kept tuition frozen at fall 2006 levels on nine of the 11 public campuses. Tuition at those nine units will remain frozen at the fall 2006 level through spring 2011.

Last May, weighing the state legislative appropriation against students’ educational needs, the Board of Regents voted to increase tuition at Montana State University in Bozeman and at the University of Montana in Missoula by 3 percent following two years of a tuition freeze at 2006 levels. Nationally, a 3 percent increase is very modest, but the regents did their best to balance the interests of the students with the interests of the state’s taxpayers. The tuition decision was publicized to all new and returning UM and MSU students last summer and implemented at the start of the current fall semester.

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What doesn’t seem to make the news is the fact that regents and campus leaders spend far more time creating efficiencies than they do pondering tuition revenue. An independent national study placed UM and MSU as lowest in the country in per-student spending for similar universities. To accomplish this level of efficiency while still receiving many awards for their quality of education is remarkable.

Although Montana is already the lowest cost-per-student provider in the country, the Regents’ Reform Workgroup was recently created to analyze additional cost-saving and revenue-generating options for increasing efficiency, cost control, distance learning, two-year degrees and early college for high school students.

The Regents’ Reform Workgroup meetings are publicly noticed on the mus.edu Web site. Keeping college affordable in Montana is an interest we all share. We invite all interested citizens, especially students, to join us in this effort.

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