On a recent statewide tour, a couple from Billings told a University of Montana dean that UM couldn't compete with the charismatic and aggressive recruitment by Montana State University.
The couple also told Brock Tessman, dean of the Davidson Honors College, that UM could learn to emulate MSU's style, but not match it.
Tessman, who believes a new effort by UM to dramatically increase outreach to high school students will change the playing field, said he actually isn't interested in emulating another university.
"We want to be the best honors college and the best university in the state. So that's my goal. I'm happy to compete if that's what is necessary," Tessman said Friday.
Enrollment at UM has declined in recent years, and tuition waivers are one tool campuses use to attract students in a variety of categories, including nonresidents, national merit scholars, employees, senior citizens, and honors students.
For instance, Tessman estimated that a majority of the 700 students enrolled at the honors college at UM are recipients of tuition waivers.
Across the Montana University System, the value of waivers and scholarships has increased some 42 percent since 2010, with an estimated $44.6 million budgeted in the 2016 school year, according to data from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for planning and analysis in the commissioner's office, said the waivers are just one component of a larger financial aid system, and they don't represent the largest component. Federal grants, for instance, are sizable by comparison.
However, at the most recent Montana Board of Regents meeting, members of the governing body focused on the use of waivers by the campuses. After the meeting, Regent Fran Albrecht said regents plan to keep close tabs on the waivers to ensure the schools aren't using them to undermine each other, as they did in the past.
"We feel they are using them effectively, and so we're happy with that. But we want the commissioner's office to continue to look into that and report back," said Albrecht, also chair of the administrative, budget and audit oversight committee.
In the 2016 fiscal year, UM has budgeted $17.3 million in waived tuition for 2,168 full-time equivalent students, according to data from the commissioner's office. MSU, on the other hand, has budgeted $27.3 million for some 2,900 FTE.
At their meeting, the regents discussed the proper use of the tuition waiver as a recruitment tool.
The waivers are an excellent way for universities to draw in students who might be eyeing a school outside the state, she said.
"It just tips the scale to bring them to Montana," Albrecht said.
Currently, she said, the universities are using the waivers in an appropriate way. Across the system, the value of resident waivers has gone up 26 percent since 2010, and the value of nonresident waivers has jumped 56 percent over the same period, according to the commissioner's office.
The waivers are like a discount, said deputy commissioner Tyler Trevor. They represent a lack of revenue for the universities, with some mandated through policy, such as ones for veterans, Native Americans and honors students.
However, he said universities have a lot of discretion over the use of waivers, and they are becoming more targeted in their use.
"We've become more strategic on using nonresident waivers to recruit nonresident students because they are a critical source of revenue for us," Trevor said.
For instance, a nonresident might get a $5,000 discount, but still pay more than the cost of educating a student, he said.
Historically, though, Albrecht said the campuses used the waivers to undermine each other. Moving forward, the regents want to be certain the universities continue to use dollars efficiently, she said.
In other words, if a Montana student is already looking at going to one state school, and has the money, another state school shouldn't use a waiver to try to lure the student away.
"We don't want the schools to be battling each other, and apparently that has happened in the past," Albrecht said.
This year, UM has budgeted some $4.2 million for nonresident undergraduates, and MSU has budgeted some $11.3 million for the same. At the meeting, the regents didn't take any action on the waivers, but they did pledge to keep a close eye on their use.
"We will circle back and check in on that in the future," Albrecht said.