HELENA - Kate Moseley will graduate from Flathead Valley Community College next month owing exactly nothing in student loans.
The 29-year-old Montana native said she lucked out working for a few years out of state, where she had "a really good job" and was able to save for her schooling. Plus, she also chose a two-year college, rather than a four-year school, because they typically charge lower tuition costs.
Given everything people hear about the cheaper cost of two-year education, you might think Moseley's happy-ending story is the norm.
But it's not.
In fact, graduates of the Montana university system's two-year schools are borrowing more per degree year than graduates of the state's public four-year universities, statistics show. That's despite the fact that tuition at two-year schools averages 30 percent lower than four-year schools, said Mary Sheehy Moe, deputy commissioner for two-year education at the Montana university system.
So, what's going on here?
The numbers tell part of the story. Montana has eight two-year colleges. Five are colleges of technology - what were once commonly called "vo-techs" - in Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula. Those two-year schools are part of the Montana university system, governed by the state Board of Regents and are affiliated with one of the state's four-year universities.
Montana also has three public community colleges: Flathead Valley in Kalispell, Dawson in Glendive and Miles in Miles City. Those two-year schools are independent but affiliated with the university system. They are supported, in part, by local property taxes levied within a local district and are governed by a local board of trustees, not the state Board of Regents.
Two-year schools offer associate degrees, some of which provide all the education and training needed to enter certain professional fields, like nursing. In other cases, an associate degree is geared more for students transferring to a four-year school and are packaged as a way for students angling for a bachelor's degree to save money.
Last year, 1,398 Montana students earned associate degrees, Moe said, and most of those - 986 - earned those degrees from a college of technology in the Montana university system.
About 72 percent of those students took on college debt to earn their degree, according to information from the Montana Guaranteed Student Loan Association, which handles loans for Montana students. The average debt load for those graduates was $15,509 - or $7,754 per degree year.
About two thirds - 66.3 percent - of four-year students also took on debt. The average debt load for four-year students upon graduation was $20,508, or $5,127 per degree year.
That's $2,627 less per degree year than graduates of Montana's two-year colleges of technology.
Debt statistics for Montana's three community colleges are harder to find because they are independent. At Miles Community College, more than half the students had no debt at all last year, according to Loren Lancaster, director of financial aid. Those who did incur debt took on about $4,200 that year, or substantially less than students at either two- or four-year schools.
For many student borrowers, that debt doesn't become real until their first student loan payment comes due, a date coming up early in December for students who graduated this spring. According to the Montana Guaranteed Student Loan Program, the average monthly loan payment on a debt of $15,509 - the average two-year school debt load - is $178.48.
The average monthly loan payment on $20,508 - the average four-year school debt load - is $263.02.
Those figures, which are approximate, are based on a standard 10-year repayment schedule on a loan with 6.8 percent interest rate, the fixed rate for subsidized Stafford loans disbursed between July 2006 and the end of June 2008.
Still, that figure shows that the average student borrower with a two-year degree is only saving about $57 a month, or about $684 a year.
So, why are Montana university system students with associate's degrees paying more per degree year?
Part of the answer points to continuing problems in higher education, such as the lack of scholarships for part-time students and the high cost of child care and housing.
For starters, said Moe, the average age of students in the university system's two-year schools is 30. Many have adult responsibilities, such as children.
State policy forbids the U-system's two-year schools from denying enrollment to any student. So some two-year students might need remedial classes to catch up when they enter college. Extra classes mean more time in school and more money.
A two-year degree program is 60 credits, Moe said. But the average U-system two-year graduate has 82 credits upon graduation.
Dan Carter, a spokesman for Montana State University-Billings, said students also borrow money to live on. That makes sense. Students need time to go to class and do their homework. But replacing that income usually means more loans.
"Child care and housing are huge," said Carter. "For a lot of students, it's a make-or-break sort of prospect."
Some four-year schools like the University of Montana and Montana State University-Billings, have quality, affordable child care on campus for students. But many two-year colleges do not.
Housing is also an enormous burden. Parents who are students cannot bunk up with a bunch of friends in the student ghetto.
MSU-B offers just 10 units of housing for students with dependents.
UM, which also runs a two-year college of technology in Missoula, sensed the scarcity of housing, particularly housing for families, in the early 1990s, said Ron Brunell, UM's director of residence life. Since the mid-1990s, the university has built 965 new units of housing, including hundreds of apartments for students with children.
"We try to be below the Missoula market," Brunell said. A two-bedroom university apartment now rents for as little as $490 a month. And there's a subsidized child care center just blocks away, he said.
The state is working toward offering more online courses so parents can take classes when it makes the most sense for them, like at night when their children are sleeping. That would help cut down on the need for child care.
Moe said there are very few scholarships for two-year, part-time students.
In Moseley's case, Flathead Valley simply waived her entire tuition for two semesters because she had a high grade-point average.
Moseley will graduate in a few weeks, but she's not through with her schooling. She's planning on finishing up her business degree at Montana State University-Billings, more than 430 miles away. But, again, Moseley is taking a thrifty path.
She's doing the entire thing online.
Reporter Jennifer McKee can be reached at (406) 447-4069 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.