HELENA – This week, seniors at most high schools in Montana can apply to college for free.
Education officials on Tuesday kicked off the state’s first College Application Week, an initiative that provides assistance to students who might be thinking about pursuing higher education.
They hope the no-cost applications, as part of a larger statewide effort, will further grease the wheels for seniors to enroll in college, especially students who might not otherwise be likely to attend.
“Even though everyone is not thinking about going to college, nobody should have those doors closed,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said.
Eighteen colleges and universities in the state – including the flagship universities, two-year schools and some tribal colleges – agreed to waive their application fees through Friday.
Students applying to either Montana State or the University of Montana, for instance, will save $36. Fees at most two-year colleges are about the same.
Even private Carroll College in Helena is participating, Carroll marketing director Patty White said. She noted that Carroll always waives the application fee for students who apply online.
More than two-thirds of high schools are taking part, either by offering extra assistance to students who choose to complete an application or providing class time for them to refine their essays. Each student may submit an application to one eligible school, Juneau said.
Locally, Helena High School has joined the effort. Juneau was joined by Gov. Steve Bullock and state higher education officials for a visit to one of the school’s senior English classes to encourage students to take advantage of the waiver.
“Learning doesn’t stop with high school,” John Cech, deputy commissioner for two-year and community college education, told students. “Learning will continue until you’re 80 or beyond.”
“That was the equalizer,” Bullock said, referring to his time in college.
“It didn’t matter what my background was (or) who my parents were,” he said.
“Why not just put in an application?” Bullock added.
More seniors are prepared to apply to college, officials said, after a similar effort has allowed every high school junior in Montana to take the ACT college entrance exam at no cost.
Like College Application Week, the free ACT testing was funded through a $28 million federal GEAR UP grant that stretches over the next several years.
Nearly 3,000 more students took the ACT last spring, resulting in 520 additional students who were eligible for full admission to one of the state’s four-year schools, according to the Office of Public Instruction.
“This is absolutely huge,” Cech said of the joint effort by state higher education and K-12 officials. “We want Montana students to understand the opportunities that are available to them as far as two-year as well as four-year universities.”
He said boosting the proportion of high school students who move on to college is important for their individual success and the state economy as a whole.
“A high school diploma will not provide these graduates with the skills and credentials they need to get in high-paying work,” Cech said.
He also pointed to a “skills gap” projected to hit the state in the next decade, in which the demand for highly educated workers could outpace the supply. Cech said getting more Montanans into Montana higher education institutions can make up that gap.
“We want students to consider Montana colleges and universities as their first choice,” he said.