HELENA - Students at Montana's public colleges likely can expect tuition increases ranging from 4 percent to 12 percent this fall, with the bulk of them being asked to swallow a 10 percent jump in what they pay for a higher education.

Commissioner of Higher Education Dick Crofts said Wednesday he's recommending the Montana Board of Regents approve a three-tiered tuition increase averaging between $200 and $250 for each student attending the university system in 2001-2002 school year. The university governing board will make the decision Thursday and Friday while it convenes in Great Falls for its bimonthly meeting.

Crofts said the proposed tuition increases are essential to preserve quality at the public university system, even though they are probably less than they should be to cover necessary costs and to make up for less-than-desired state funding from the Legislature. Lawmakers this session increased spending for higher education by $21.9 million over the next two years, about one-third less than the university system had initially sought.

"This has been complicated and tough," Crofts said of the tuition proposal. "We worry a lot about the impact it will have on people."

Currently, an in-state student pays an average of $2,282 a year for a higher education.

Specifically, the regents will be asked to approve a 4 percent tuition increase for students at the Colleges of Technology in Helena and Great Falls and for lower-level students at Montana State University Northern at Havre and the University of Montana-Western at Dillon. Crofts said the lower rate for these schools is needed to keep costs comparable to similar colleges elsewhere.

A 10 percent increase will be recommended for upper division students at the Havre and Dillon schools and for those attending the University of Montana-Missoula, Montana State University-Bozeman and MSU-Billings.

The commission also is recommending the highest tuition jump of 12 percent at Montana Tech at Butte, primarily because courses are more costly at the mining and engineering campus. All campuses will be asked to impose a 3 percent increase in student fees, or those additional costs for such needs as libraries, computers and athletics.

The tuition increases will apply for both in-state and out-of-state students.

Crofts said while the proposed tuition hikes are tough to accept, they are a must given the university system's $40 million debt. If the regents don't make up for budgetary holes from the students, courses and staff will be cut and the quality of Montana higher education will be at stake.

"We just don't think it's realistic to reduce programs and personnel without having disastrous consequences," said Crofts.

In particular, the commissioner said keeping tuition rates at existing levels would mean cuts of between $15 million and $18 million.

"I don't think, by and large, anyone who looks at it closely and carefully would say that would be a good alternative to a 10 percent tuition increase," he said.

The tuition increases are substantially more than the 4.3 percent average increase imposed over each of the last two years. It's also slightly higher in some cases than the 9.3 percent in 2002 and 9.4 percent in 2003 entertained by Crofts during and shortly after adjournment of the 2001 Legislature.

Unlike in the past, the regents will only be asked to increase tuition in 2002, Crofts said. That's because there are many financial unknowns looming, not the least of which is uncertainty in utility costs, he said.

Board members have the option of accepting, rejecting or modifying Crofts' recommended tuition increases. He said based on the current budget outlook, the regents may want to go above his recommendations by another 1 percent.

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