UM main hall stockimage (MIS)

The University of Montana's main hall. 

The University of Montana has marketed lifestyle.

It has marketed the strength of its programs, like pharmacy and physical therapy.

Going forward, UM is going to tout the competitive cost of education for nonresident students – and try to capture more of them as other campuses have done over roughly the last decade.

This summer, Tom Crady took on the job of reversing a UM enrollment decline that has persisted for more than four years. He did so because he believes UM can meet the challenge.

As he sees it, the university's market position in the west is strong.

"That's a big issue. That's one of the reasons I accepted the job," said Crady, vice president for enrollment management and student services at UM.

Last week, the Montana Board of Regents launched a conversation about the way it will develop policies on setting tuition in the future.

Over the past decade, the Montana University System oversaw a tuition freeze for resident students – one that lasted six years at the flagship campuses and 10 years at the two-year colleges.

"Over the past 10 years, the MUS has increased tuition at a slower pace than any other state in the nation," reads part of a presentation to the regents.

Tuition and fees for a resident, lower-division student at UM are $6,157 – just 72 percent of the regional average of $8,553.

For an out-of-state student, tuition and fees are some $22,000 in Montana – lower than the national average of $23,890, according to the College Board, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to higher education.

One nonresident can bring in more than three times the dollars a Montana student contributes.

"The revenue their tuition represents really does subsidize the state and subsidize the resident student," said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of communications for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

The nonresident cost in Montana is also roughly 72 percent of the cost a nonresident would pay in nearby Washington, which charges an estimated $29,000 in tuition and fees, according to College Board.

"One of the things I think is really important for us to focus on is what a great price we are relative to overlapping institutions," or other universities to which a UM student is likely applying, Crady said.

The relative affordability has downsides, though. For one, it's largely the reason faculty and staff salaries are far below the national average, according to the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

And the long stall on tuition increases might not last much longer. In May, the regents will meet to set tuition after the 2017 Montana Legislature takes up the state budget.

"We are preparing under one scenario that the result of this legislative session (is MUS) might not have the state funding necessary to enable a tuition freeze," McRae said.

***

Bringing in more nonresident students sounds like a doable feat and quick win for UM. 

Crady came to Montana this summer from Minnesota, and he said UM has "a really great reputation" outside Montana.

"Parents are looking for an outstanding education, which U of M provides, at a very reasonable price," Crady said. " ... Our price is awesome."

For nonresident students at UM, one semester of lower division tuition and fees costs $11,882.13, according to the campus website. The goal is to show potential students that UM provides the whole package, "superb" academics, affordability and a great location.

The mix of Montana students with those from other areas of the country and the world is a plus, said John DeBoer, chair of the faculty senate and associate professor in theater and dance. Students with different backgrounds make for a rich and diverse campus.

"I think that recruiting out-of-state students is a great experience for our in-state students," DeBoer said.

***

But the push to recruit nonresidents has raised philosophical questions about the mission of public institutions.

The recruitment effort has taken place nationwide, and some states have started setting limits on out-of-state enrollment, McRae said. They're asking themselves if they've lost their way in their responsibilities to educate state students.

So far, Montana doesn't restrict access to nonresidents, and UM has room to grow in nonresidents compared to Montana State University in Bozeman, McRae said.

MSU is projected to have 32 percent nonresidents in its 14,412 student enrollment this fiscal year; UM is projected to have 20 percent nonresidents of its 10,409 enrollment.

Tuition for nonresidents hasn't been frozen, but it hasn't gone up as fast as it has in many other states, either.

"They still have been among the most modest increases in the country around this time," McRae said.

***

The low cost is appealing to those footing the bill, but it has ramifications for the university system.

It means lower pay for faculty, staff and administrators in Montana, according to the commissioner's office. Some potential candidates pull out of the running partway through a national recruitment.

"It is hard to recruit if your published salary is going to be lower than the national average," DeBoer said.

It isn't clear if the lower tuition has affected the quality of programs at UM. The commissioner's office has not conducted such an analysis, according to McRae.

UM has been hitting high academic marks and continues to attract top-shelf faculty. Its wildlife biology program was just counted as tops in the United States and Canada, for one.

"I look at the fact that our journalism students are going overseas to write about really important issues in the world," DeBoer said of the refugee crisis and a student trip to Germany this summer. "Our history faculty are recruiting some of the top new scholars from Harvard and Stanford.

"People want to come to the University of Montana and participate in the programming that we have to offer."

Lower revenue means smaller operating budgets, but faculty are savvy about bringing other money in across the system, he said. In theater, it means students work with a box office that brings in revenue, as they will in the real world.

"One thing we do really well at the University of Montana is get our students involved in the practice of the field that they are studying," DeBoer said.

***

It's too early to know exactly how the mix of tuition and state appropriations will look next school year.

The governor's budget likely won't be released until the middle of November, and the Montana Legislature will wrestle with it the first part of 2017.

Currently, the state pays 39 percent of the cost of education, and the average state in the nation pays 50 percent, said Sam Forstag, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana and president of the Montana Associated Students.

"I think anyone would tell you, for a public institution, having the state itself pitch in at least half the funding for it, it just seems sort of common sense to me," Forstag said. 

And in the upcoming session, students will call on legislators to push up the state appropriation, he said. Forstag wants to see the conversation focus on upping state support – not raising tuition or cutting staff.

***

If necessary, though, the regents will consider tuition increases in the spring to take effect the following fall, McRae said.

Affordability is a challenge. Even though Montana's tuition and fees look competitive compared to national ones and appealing to nonresidents, they're high for families in the state.

"Our tuition is further out of reach of Montana's per capita income than the average state is," McRae said. "That's the important thing from an affordability aspect."

The issue came up at the regents' meeting last week. Before the time comes in May to set tuition for all students, the regents will talk about their philosophical approach to the costs of education.

During the discussion, Regent Bill Johnstone said he believes the state has a greater capacity to provide scholarships based on need to resident students.

Data from ProPublica show UM provides relatively little support for low-income students; it offers a discount of 36 percent and is ranked 147 out of 173 comparable institutions.

"We're holding down tuition for the benefit of everybody regardless of need, and to some extent, I think we're under-serving need-based students," Johnstone said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian